Use it Now

Growing up in an immigrant family meant constant saving, eating everything on your plate, and being grateful for everything you had. My parents had fled massive deprivation, arriving in this country undernourished and fearful. By the time I was born (in the U.S.) were saving and carefully accumulating “good” dishes and everyday dishes, “good” silverware and everyday flatware. The “good” items were brought out on very special occasions.

Birthdays and celebrations weren’t “good” enough for the special dishes. Most of the use came at serious achievements or life milestones. So rare were these occasions that I my eyes would tear up when I saw the “good dishes” being washed because I was certain someone had died and we were using the dishes for a memorial service.

Hope-chest towel, hand embroidered and crocheted.

Hope-chest towel, hand embroidered and crocheted.

When I was 6 years old, my mother set me on the path of making “good” items for a hope chest. A hope chest was a cedar chest, purchased for a young girl and filled with items to be used when she got married. Many parents purchased items for their daughters hope chest; I hand made all of mine. In those days you could buy towel linen, which you then stamped with a pattern and embroidered. I didn’t like the tiny, detailed flowers that required small, delicate stitches, so I often drew my own, simple patterns.

I learned to embroider and crochet, make tatted lace and do hemstitching. I was not clever at this, and many tears went into the projects. Often I pulled out what had taken hours to complete. Of course, the thread had to be used again. My mother supervised my work, and I longed to be away from it.

The hope chest was full when I left my parents’ house, and I never used the towels. They were heavy linen, needed to be ironed, and I cringed when I looked at them.

Yesterday I found the towels in the bottom of the hope chest. It’s been many years since I made them and I’ve decided to use them now. Often. Every day. I don’t want them displayed at my funeral. I want them worn down with loving use. I won’t iron them, simply wash, dry and use them. If you save them for good, they will never get the use they were meant to take.

I no longer have “good” dishes. I use what I have every day. My embroidered tablecloths have stains and small burns from blown-out candles. Birthday, anniversary, holidays. My tablecloths, and now my towels, will be used for good–everyday good. Because when I put them on the table, it becomes a good day.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at

5 thoughts on “Use it Now

  1. Same thing here, except my hope chest also included pieces of china purchased from an old Canadian gift store as the pattern was closed and the display pieces put on sale. I have a nice ‘set’ of china I inherited from my mother which she purchased two months before she died, having never had a complete set of china of her own during her entire married life, but I love my little off-pieces (mostly luncheon plates and teacups and saucers, with the occasional platter picked up at an estate sale).
    Having found all my mother’s best lingerie from her trousseau still wrapped in tissue in her drawer (and she was the same size all her life so these were being saved for ‘good,’), and that set of china which she also never used, I use everything: the old linen napkins from the steamboat my great uncle worked on for several years, the tea towels that I embroidered, the ones my mother embroidered, and the tatting done by my grandmother. I have no children to pass them to so I may as well use them myself!
    I recently gifted the daughter of a friend with a delicate handkerchief which my great aunt had inserted her own lacework. She’s seen a photo of my great aunt and she knows me, so the handwork of my great aunt (who filled her own hope chest but never married) will live on in someone new.

    Oh, and yes, we also used thread on sale, fabric on clearance, and recycled stained or torn quilts into mattress covers or pillow batts, though my mother never quite got so anal as to cover furniture or carpet with other covers.

  2. I too filled a hope chest under the watchful eyes of both a grandmother and great-grandmother. And I also learned all those old arts – tatting, weaving on a huge oak frame, embroidery. Though I remember dragging my needlework outside, and sewing under a cave of bridal wreath bushes.:-)

    I still have the doilies and pillow cases I embroidered in my early years – and still use them. Though I really love your cheery cherry motif.

    For some odd reason, four of my pillowcases have bouquets of purple violets, bright orange roses, and yellow-green leaves. Maybe the thread was on clearance? Do you think?

    —Sounds like the thread was on sale, or it was leftovers from other projects. -Q

  3. Hi Quinn,
    I’m so glad to see you resurfaced from all the boxes!
    Your stitching looks very nice, even though you said you felt it was simpler than some of the fancy patterns. Actually, it looks like you could have purchased it today, at a modern home dec store, as retro is “in”.
    Not that you are retro, mind you.

    Vicky F
    p.s. your cats look like they’re settling in to their favorite spots. That’s the first order of cat business, you know.

    —-Cats always come first. One of my joys is to see how much more active they are here, finding places to pounce on each other. Thanks for the kind words on the towel. After all this time, retro is in and it is modern again. I’ve been retro several times! -Q

  4. This totally resonates with me. My grandparents were particularly bad at this thrift thing, to the point of being amusing. My favorite was the sofa with three protective blankets on it, interlined with sheets of polythene. The first layer being the best cover, then one to protect the good cover and so on. The sofa never saw the light of day. Although I am grateful for having been taught thrift, I have taken the dust jackets off my books, and try to use up all the lovely fabrics and other things I kept “for good”. It is more beautiful in use. I love your last line – “it becomes a good day”. Very true.

    —I LOVE the cover for the covers. We actually had to cover every book we checked out of the library with a plain bookcover, lest the plastic dust jacket covering the paper dust jacket get soiled. We had rugs on carpets, to protect the floors, too. Thrift is a wonderful thing, but we did do some odd things in the name of thrift. -Q

  5. The more often you wash the linen towels and dry them in the dryer the softer and more absorbent they become. I have many that belonged to my mom and grandmothers. I use them. I also use gran’s dishes daily and the crystal works equally well for juice or wine.
    I love the photo of Aretha.
    Welcome home, to all of you.

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