“The palest ink is better than the sharpest memory.” Chinese proverb
This luggage tag is what I have left of the ways in which my father’s hands moved and how he grasped his pen, always that blue plastic one with “Modern Barber Shop” on one side and his name on the other as Owner.
He’s been dead for 25 years now—dead now longer than he was alive in my life. Surely he’s been gone long enough that I am healed from that confusing and awkward and sickening day, those years of lack.
Sure. This simple, gray plastic luggage tag—ironically, an accidental icon of a man who never got to travel—surfaced in an attic box recently, all unannounced, pushing the air straight out of my lungs like I was practicing some sort of elaborate Breath Elimination Ritual. I got that little tinny taste you get in your mouth when you accidentally bite into aluminum foil after unwrapping your baked potato. That feeling of nausea and shakiness, a bodily recognition of ache, that.
And what I realized as I remembered to breathe again was this: I need to also write things in my own hand, not just type here at my obsessive machine, but stop and pull out real paper and a nice fountain pen and make note of my passage through this world in my own handwriting, those curves of letters and angular bits that don’t seem distinctive to me because I’m in it, but does look like me to others, just as I would have recognized my father’s hand even if he hadn’t been writing down his own name, that odd combination of little and big letters, caps and caplets mixed together, that “l” in “Melvin” never capitalized, that “E” and N” always so, that turned-back loop at the bottom of his “5s” and the small “g” always hovering above the line of other letters.
That cadence of small “i’s” with tiny dots; it is all pure Daddy. I’d know it anywhere. I had a tiny grocery list of his for years that I carried in my passport all over the world: “BrEAD, MilK, grapE jEllY,” it simply said, but I lost it on a long trip to Asia, devastated because it was the only shred I had left, until this luggage tag emerged.
So I have him back, the part beyond a static photograph, the part where he’s actually made something of his own volition—a grocery list, an identification tag for all those trips he and I planned to take someday. (Now if I could only get his voice back). My daughters have mainly these typed images of me, the ones you see in front of you, not swoops and odd dots and strong “Ts.” In this typed text, they have scratches that could be anyone’s, not just mine.
The distinctiveness of that voice, that person, that way of sense-making is contained not only in the very accumulation of words and their meaning, but in their construction as well, those marks and lines and curves. To have them here is as if people have been reanimated for us, requiring movement to make those words, or at least the pentimento of movement. We mustn’t lose that distinctive identifier in our world of typing. Let’s rebel, wear berets at a jaunty angle, sit in cafes that proudly announce the lack of WiFi, and scratch out poems and grocery lists on recycled 30% post-production waste paper with soy inks.
Several years ago just after my first book came out (I gave copies to family and friends with small red plastic magnifying glasses attached to the spine, my name was so small on it), someone asked my older daughter, Emma, what her Mommy did for a living. Emma was seven at the time. “She’s a typer,” I heard her reply. “She types.” I didn’t even bother to elaborate or qualify it or make it nicer or more impressive. “Yes,” I said quietly. “I type. I’m a typer.” What happened to being a writer, that magnificent obsession with paper and pens?
Daddy’s handwriting doesn’t just contain the information he was leaving—that “BrEAD, MilK, grapE jEllY.” No, it contains the rhythm of his way in the world, the memory of his hands, those fingers, that cadence with which he made his 5’8” way through the world in those bright green jackets and broad ties of the 1970s with plaid green and yellow pants beneath, those perfectly polished heavy black wing tips grounding him.
There is more to language than just its meaning. There is its form. There is sense and rhythm and a recognition that it has emanated from one of us, a human, a person whose handwriting was shaped at such a young age and that continues in that same frame, save for the rounded circles above the “i’s” that we’re prone to in fourth grade, those curlicues at the end of words that reach up and over and form a heart or a flower. Those seasonal idiosyncrasies fall away, but the skeleton of those first big letters with chunky pencils remains.
My husband, John, loves old manuscripts. He appreciates them and cares for them and brings them home to save them. There is a beauty in the handwriting of years past that I fear we’ve lost, our speed to communicate in bits and bytes diminishing those swirls to antiseptic serifs, our utilitarian approach to communication erasing the flourish of our ancestors, our instantaneous responses negating that moment of pensive thought, that thoughtful pause where the right word will arise from the mist of mindfulness. Writing was art; now no longer beautiful in the same way, it is just really, really fast. If it’s fast enough, shooting into our email box like pellets, maybe we won’t notice the loss of art part.
There is something comforting about holding onto a person’s handwriting, as if a larger part of them has been revealed as still with you when feared long gone. I recently received a package from my fourth grade teacher’s daughter, a precious gift she sent after cleaning out her basement and sorting through her mother’s belongings. Mrs. Smith was The Most Extraordinary Teacher in the Universe. 65 years old when I was a fourth grader, she retired that year. We corresponded until her death a few years ago, one sad July day. She was 93 when she died, ending almost 30 years of handmade, off-centered little weavings I would make her, postcards I would send her from my travels around the world, and her notes to me through the years, challenging me and praising me and just staying connected.
The last time I saw her, we visited—me, John, and Emma. She was 90 then and racing six-year-old Emma down the hall, making tri-cornered hats out of newspaper with her, and playing a recorder, that beige and red plastic instrument from elementary school that she loved so much. It was that energy for life that had made her such a remarkable teacher in the first place, still there thirty years later.
The package contained two glass birds from Mrs. Smith’s house, one for each of my daughters so they can carry forth into their lives the memory of this extraordinary woman. And, also, the most precious gift: a bundle of every letter and holiday card and little scrap of paper that I had ever sent Mrs. Smith in those 30 years of our love for one another. Included, of course, were not only samples of my fourth grade cursive, but her distinctive handwriting, too, that beautiful style that was her signature. Opening that package, it was as if she came back; though, of course, she never left, as Daddy never did.
There is power in those strokes. Someone, someday, will cherish those floating “Gs” and loopy “5s,” holding onto them as if they were tiny life rafts on which they, too, could float with you for a moment or two or three. There’s meaning in them, and not just that referential kind, but the embodied kind, the real sort, the human bit.
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
Write a real letter to someone this week. As in the make a cup of tea, eat a strawberry scone from West End Bakery, pick up a pen that you love, the kind where the ink is satisfying, think pensively with pen poised, put pen to paper, decorate an envelope with a caricature of yourself saying their address, put a stamp on it and mail it kind of writing. Repeat often. Make it a habit. Surprise people.
Hold on to a grocery list or two for old time’s sake.
Be a writer, not just a typer.