“What the heck is this thing?” I called to my sister in the other room.
“What?” she asked, walking from the bedroom in the hotel room we were sharing in the city of Chicago, into the bathroom where I stood in my robe.
“This thing,” I said, and I pointed to a silver knob mounted to the wall of the shower in the small, old-fashioned tile bathroom we were sharing at the Palmer House during our vacation in the Windy City.
“This thing?” she asked, getting closer to inspect the mysterious knob.
“Yeah,” I replied, combing my wet hair, having just stepped out of the very shower bearing the mystifying item on its wall.
“What the heck is that thing?”
We marveled at the knob on the wall, guessing aloud to one another about what it could be, not unlike a “Saturday Night Live” skit in 1979 by Steve Martin and Bill Murray called “What The Hell Is That?”
Perhaps it was originally a bell that people in the early 1900s could ring for help in the shower, my sister guessed.
Or maybe it represented the original height of the shower curtain rod, I wondered aloud.
“People were shorter then, right?” I asked. “Less protein in their diets?”
“No, no, I know what it is,” she said. “It’s just an old-timey towel hanger.”
She retrieved one of the crisp, white hotel towels from the newfangled towel rack on the bathroom wall, and draped it over the knob.
“There,” she said, pleased with herself.
I raised an eyebrow, and the towel promptly fell to the floor.
“Nah, that’s not it,” I said.
“I give up,” my sister said, heading back to the bedroom to get ready for our day in the city. “Google it.”
As we walked and Uber’ed and gallivanted around the city of Chicago that day, I kept that old silver knob in my mind and I thought back to all of the items I’d seen over the years that never would have made any sense to me if my grandparents hadn’t been there to explain them to me. They taught me about old-fashioned meat grinders, rotary telephones, television sets made of real oak wood and about as large modern ovens, typewriters, pocket watches, washboards and more.
I thought that day in Chicago about how my granddaddy, before he passed away, was always ready to explain to me what something was, always ready to show me how to appreciate something old and to find its usefulness. Every year he was in my life, he made sense of the world in which we lived and by doing so he always made the world feel like a better place to live.
Later that night in Chicago, my sister and I kicked off our shoes in our hotel room and started to wash up for bedtime. I was washing my face in the sink when I caught the reflection of that mysterious knob in the mirror.
Drying off my face with a fresh towel, I walked over to the knob and looked at it one more time. This time, I noticed a small protrusion on the front of the knob which stood out from the rest of the object. Curious, I felt the protrusion with my fingers and pushed on it a little bit, then pulled on it, amazed to see it coming out of the knob along with a sturdy clothesline.
“Come here!” I called to my sister. “I know what it is!”
That was the night that two gals from the Upstate learned, in the big city, about old-fashioned shower clotheslines. It wasn’t much to write home about, but it was a curious little discovery of the past; it made me think about all the people that had traveled to Chicago so many years ago and the washed stockings they probably hung on the line after a long day in the city.
Most of all, it reminded me that just because I don’t understand something from where I stand, that doesn’t mean that the thing doesn’t hold value to someone, or have a purpose in some other place or time. Our world turns a little too quickly for me these days, but I can imagine that my granddaddy would tell me to remember that clothesline in Chicago, and to take all of the confusion of our world into my hands, and to keep pushing and pulling on it until it makes more sense.