Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
Is it pencilled in?
I turned a crank and rasping sounds started. My lead pencil’s wood shavings filled the gadget’s cylinder, and, when the writing point was correct, I pulled out the yellow writing piece. The sharpener’s metal frame was affixed to a wall for stability. I emptied a removable cylinder’s remnants by twisting, freed the chamber of splinters then emptied into a brown paper trash-bag. With another twist, I returned the cylinder to position.
What I held to sketch artwork had black soft charcoal inside, and I could smudge it with my fingers to create shadows on white art paper. What I’d just sharpened didn’t smudge with use.
A tiny rectangle with a razor-type blade, and a hole just the correct size for a pencil, was my carry-to-school way to make a good point. I didn’t yet know that graphite, not lead, was the dark and erasable writing part. Why wasn’t it called a graphite pencil!
The common eraser stuck to the thin-wood-hexagon’s end was not even invented until the 19th century! I looked that up in my heavy encyclopedia that the family got from the door-to-door salesman. I also read that cedar was replaced by other wood.
During World War II, my mother would write on jars of food she’d ‘canned’ and had special grease pencils in a kitchen drawer. Special, made of wax, resistant to drops of water, I liked peeling a string that removed bits of paper exposing a writing surface. But they weren’t art ones, nor could take to school, so after ruining one by trying to make it something I could use, I kept my fingers out of her marking-drawer. I picked vegetables from our Victory Garden; I didn’t want to can them, although I didn’t understand the term since jars were glass and not tin. Well, tin went to the war effort, so maybe that’s why canning was done in glass.
I learned that the rotary sharpener, like the one my mom put up, was banned in Britain during the very same war, and people had to make points using a knife. Nothing was wasted during world fighting, but why couldn’t the contents of the cylinder be emptied and the stuff inside re-purposed? My parents certainly would never have let me use a knife!
My dad got me colored pencils! I liked sharpening those as each color I put in made the procedure less boring. Unlike my little-girl crayons, I could be precise with whatever I was drawing.
My mother said she’d learned stenography and those specific pencils had points on both ends, were round not hexagons, and the shape was more comfortable. I couldn’t imagine two points and having to decide which end to use first!
When I got to high school, I got a fountain pen. It was so amazing to suck South Sea Blue ink inside of it, wipe the 14k gold tip with a tissue to get off drippy ink, carry a red blotter to soak up extra wet before I smeared the ink after writing, and feeling very grown up. I couldn’t figure out how many words penned before the ink ran out, so had to carry the bottle in my purse. Sometimes there were leaks from the cap. I tried wrapping the bottle in wax paper and securing a rubber band to hold that in place, but whatever seemed to want to stain the inside of my purse just continued. The New York State Regents Exams were to be handwritten in black ink, or, maybe blue ink would be allowed; I didn’t want those dramatic colors and used my trademark shade. They were still graded, so why the fuss?
My mother continued to write letters, or everything, with a pencil. I guess she felt she didn’t have to load it up with fluid, or have a blotter handy, or anything cumbersome.
When I started undergraduate school, I learned that pencils had specific numbers since multiple choice exams required a #2 to circle in answers. I’d never noticed what I’d carried.
Ballpoint pens! Great idea but globs of goop erupted. Since no on-campus store sold any ink but black, blue, or a mixture of the two, I carried my little glass bottles from home to school in a tiny cardboard box my mother lined with wax paper in case of spilling. I got a new fountain pen where the tip was thinner; never before knew I could actually select the writing nib . To grad school, I carried several fountain pens so I didn’t have to commute by train/subway with my liquid ink.
Once my children were born, so was the Bic ballpoint pen made without problems of preceding tries. This modern object became successful enough that fountain pens could be choice and not necessity. By then, of course, plastic was developed so even if anyone carried such it could be put in a plastic bag and, if leaking happened, wouldn’t drip into a purse contents or anything.
A constant: my mother, alive until 1985, preferred to write with pencil.
“Smile,” the photographer looked straight at me on his line of people to be captured on digital, “this is a wedding.”
I attended, in 2015, a wedding of my nephew’s daughter held at a resort in the Berkshire Mountains. People I hadn’t seen in, literally, decades flew from California with their extended families, many I’d never met. I hadn’t even seen my nephew in many-many years because, also, distance.
My husband and I read the invitation, knew it had to be a ‘now’ reunion as our chronological clock was running on a low battery, and decided to make the drive from our home in the western part of New York State near Canada. My girlhood summers, having been raised on Long Island, had been in the same part of Massachusetts, and the chance to pretend, for a bit, that I was still horseback riding in the very town the wedding reception was to take place, and reverse time, was another lure.
I looked in the mirror, not really needing to, and my half face paralysis of, then, thirteen years stared back at me. Synkinesis. A word most don’t know. My condition is so unusual that few neurologists have patients with the syndrome: a Bell’s Palsy was so severe it caused permanent damage to the entire right side of my face leaving an eye that cannot blink, lips on the affected side that cannot move when I speak, spasms strong enough in the cheek and neck on palsy side that they’re easily seen, a brow that cannot move, thickness in the cheek on the outside and inside with frozen muscles pushing so hard against the teeth on that side that the teeth have actually shifted, occasional drooling as the mouth cannot hold fluid either on the right. And that’s just a bit of the affliction.
Pretense about it not bothering allows me to be ‘me’ in personality even though I know how ‘freaky’ it looks to be animated. One neurologist suggested I allow him to inject Botox into my ‘good’ side so the face would appear more symmetrical. He didn’t know me at all. Why would I take anything away from the left side that is still ‘me’ and can smile and blink and even just grin. I’d rather still have half a face of ‘me’ than lose that. Teaching myself to speak words that began with ‘p’ or ‘b’, for example, took so much effort and time, what if he ‘froze’ my mouth too much on the ‘good side’!
I dealt with so many callous people the first year, that I wrote up my experiences and the work was published in a softcover anthology. Did only readers with an affliction understand rather than ones whose method of communication were intact?
After awhile, it occurred to me that I could be photographed facing sideways looking at the person next to me, and I could smile as only my non-palsy side would show. I was delighted. Well-meaning loved ones said ‘face front’ and ‘you really don’t look bad’ and yet these were the same people who camouflaged a pimple, or smoothed their hair before a camera snapped. Facing front captured a stern non-expression, or an absurd look reminding me of a theatre mask of smile/ frown. I’m happy! I have a good and productive life, am playful, would rather be around noisy children than solemn others my age who seem to have forgotten the wonder of every day and the gift of seasons/ family/ and so forth. Inside, I want that exposed on half a face; inside, I am not the right side ugly.
Pretending, as usual, that my appearance wasn’t an issue, I embraced and was embraced by those at the wedding. The mountains validated my childhood experiences, and even the tiny town still had riding stables. I apologized for the way I looked eating, and was careful what I ordered that would require too much attempting to chew, and then put that behind me for a meal.
The rite ended, and my nephew wanted some of his extended family in a line for the professional photographer to capture. At the marriage of my oldest grandson in 2013, when the photographer commented about my lack of showing any happiness, I quietly said ‘half my face is paralyzed’. He shifted awkwardly, and I knew I couldn’t mention this again in a similar situation; I certainly didn’t want anyone to be humiliated because my austere expression was physical and the camera-person assumed otherwise.
“Smile,” the photographer looked straight at me on his line of people to be captured on digital, “this is a wedding.” I held in the shame that overcame me as he implied I was intentionally sending a message that I had little joy in the event; I looked straight at the lens; the shutter snapped. I felt self-anger afterwards that I hadn’t spoken something in a way to not embarrass the photographer yet would have allowed me to have ‘me’ show, sideways smiling. Perhaps when this comes up again, I’ll put my right hand quickly over the palsy side, tilt my head to show my real pleasure at being with family, and offer “this is my happy face.”
©2015The American Humanist Association
reprinted 2018 Thema Magazine