The Pencil

I remember a pencil at my grandparents’ house. I think it was in a square tin of stuff they’d given my sister and me to play with. Probably candy had come in the tin, or cookies. I can’t remember the lettering on it, but it was kind of battered, and aqua blue. Along with a couple of old perfume bottles (cut glass, I remember, and one had indigo paint that had chipped off it) there was this fancy mechanical pencil. A short little thing, gold metal, with a jewel on the top end. I was always intrigued by it. What world did that pencil come from?

We were small, and I don’t think I realized it must have been for card parties, for keeping score. But my instincts were right on—it had come from a different world. One in which playing cards was a major social occupation, something everyone did. When you had people over, what did you do after dinner? Play cards. When you joined a ladies’ club, what (besides a sewing circle) would you do? Play cards. And you would not set that table with plastic Solo cups (even if they had existed) or with ordinary pencils.

Funny to think of that silly pencil as an object from another planet.

I can’t remember, besides the pencil and the perfume bottles, what was in the box. I think our crayons stayed in their own carton, in the bottom drawer of Grandma’s desk. I say “Grandma’s” desk, because she was the one who sat at it, to write letters and pay bills. I can’t imagine anyone does that anymore, sits at a drop-front desk and writes. When her arthritis got so bad she couldn’t pen letters anymore, she sat there with an Underwood typewriter (the long keys with the letters on their tips always made me think of the legs of a friendly spider) and pecked out her correspondence. I think she wrote letters every week.

The thing is, I don’t really miss the damn pencil. And I never could type on a manual typewriter. I miss the people I’ve lost. And I want some of that innocence back—the quality that allowed me to hold a rhinestone-topped pencil in my hand and think it was special. What I mourn is not only the people who have gone, but my own capacity for wonder, for adventure, and my resilience. When you’re a kid, tomorrow really is a new day.

Could that still be true?

Make it so, Captain Picard says.

My grandparents didn’t even know what Star Trek was. They certainly didn’t move at anything like warp speed.

But they got through stuff I can’t even imagine.

Friends around a table. Aces over kings. We’ll make it through, somehow.

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