Pen Nibs from Heaven
The days before and after my father's funeral in 2019, it was just my eldest brother, me, my daughter, and Mom staying in their house. This wasn't the house of my childhood but the one they moved into about fifteen years ago. It was a significant down-size from our meandering thirteen-room home in the woods, a home they had cultivated and continually expanded upon, child after child. Later, with each grandchild, a namesake rose bush was planted around its perimeter. After forty years in one place, the only antidote to such a rupture is to replicate certain features of the time-tested home in the new place. Be sure it is on a side street off the main thoroughfare so as not to scare the birds, that there are trees and a mossy brook nearby, and that the interior takes on a dwarfed version of the primary home as much in color and textile as in the specific purpose of the spaces. I remember trying to console my mother after that big move, when all that could spill from her lips was, "It's just not the same." I pointed out that for my daughter, the youngest grandchild, this new home is Grammie and Grampa's house, the place where her cognizant memories of them had come to gel. This grandchild, who spent the first month of her life and the first Christmas in my childhood home, does not even remember the farewell walk I took with her at age three, trudging through an un-plowed driveway and snow-buried walkway up to the front door and into the emptied old house.
Not long after, my mother planted a rose bush tagged with her last granddaughter's name in the new backyard.
On the inside of the cottage, my father's zones were demarcated, as they had been in my childhood home. His office was decked with towers of duplicates, triplicates, and quadruplicates of things - files, staplers, flashlights, empty filing binders, and briefcases - all things he had planned to get around to sorting. In the basement two-thirds of the space was his and the other side was Mom's domain for laundry and cabinets that held holiday gift wrapping, decorations, and serving dishes. On Dad's side, in the back sat the requisite power tools, sawhorse tables, and unopened plastic containers of screws and fasteners for home repairs and birdhouse making. In the front, just at the base of steep steps descending from the kitchen, was an area lit by a low-hanging fluorescent lamp that seemed so familiar I cannot say if it was a fixture that came with that new cottage, or if it had been transplanted from Dad's workshop in the basement of the big house. It is long, camouflage green, and suspended by short lengths of chain from eye-hooks in the ceiling. When you pull the toggle to set it flickering on, upon release the string makes a bouncing leap up as though startled awake. This brightens the space where Dad displayed his collected memorabilia and yard sale finds. There is a table in the center, like an examiner's slab where you could place things one by one to get a closer look at the year, the make, and model. There are the pewter mugs, prizes from his racing days, a few favorite beer steins culled from a larger collection, brain-teaser puzzles fashioned from wood and steel. There were numerous little containers, folding rulers, and a variety of calipers and measuring tapes. It had become hard over time to know what was his, or his father's, and what was the souvenir of an unknown life picked up for pennies at a flea market.
I couldn't remember all the anecdotes and some objects were so similar in their charm and vintage, I couldn't trust my memory to identify their role - collector's item or personal talisman.
Nine months before the funeral visit, I had come from Spain to spend some time with my folks. Dad had had a near-miss in the hospital that previous winter and I had flown home by myself for a few days after Christmas to see him, just in case. I think we both knew the summer 2018 visit would be the last. I had gone down to the workshop then and stood facing the shelves, to see what object I could pull a memory from and hoping to snatch a few things that fit in my suitcase to integrate into the memorabilia shrines I had set up in my own home far away. 'Take it!' Dad said about a variety of things I brought up to show him and inquire the origins of. At that point, he could not make it down those stairs and so I went back and forth to consult him, nestled into an automated recliner in the living room like an oracle. I had been percolating ideas for sculptures I wanted to make, capes out of re-purposed things. Since my visit that previous Christmas, I had been lying awake at night visualizing every detail, down to the type of fastener or adhesive required for the confection of one cape in particular. They would require a lot of American pennies and a lot of fountain pen nibs. Pennies would be easy to come by and Dad was known for depositing his extras into little piggy banks collected from flea markets until they were packed with copper, one for each grandchild. To me, the pennies represented words and were to be filed in little envelopes cascading down the interior lining of the cape. I planned to use the pen nibs to create the look of the black-tipped tails of an ermine pelt cloak. The pen points would be stitched onto and dangle down from a fluffy mane made of diary entries, like the froth on a potent wave lapping over the deep indigo of a sweeping magistrate's cape. The brewing idea was not yet fully formed but had a working title: The Scribe, suggesting garb intended for a proud collector of stories, a troubadour or maestro of sorts.
That summer of 2018, before asking, I had poked around a bit in the cool of the cellar to see if I could unearth some fountain pen nibs from the nooks and crannies where Dad had tucked away his treasures. It seemed sacrilege to disturb the dust and the placement of the objects. I used index finger and thumb tips to slide things over gently and to see what a container within a container might hold. I thought for sure I would score some nibs. No luck. When I eventually asked if he had any vintage pen nibs to dedicate to my creative cause, he said no. Dad said, "Geesh, I used to have some. Dorothy --- " he called out, then cocking his right ear to the ground to angle his head around to look at my mother without setting off a jolt of back pain. Peering over his glasses, he said, "Whatever happened to those?"
"How should I know, you've got so much stuff down there," she says.
"Dang, sorry Laurie, I thought I used to have some." He wanted to be able to contribute.
Much of the joy of collecting things others think are useless clutter is that occasionally, just once in a while, but inevitably, someone needs that thing and then you can take the pleasure of saying, "Yes! I do in fact. Now let me just see if I can find where I put 'em ........"
Nine months later I find myself under that blinking fluorescent lamp again, this time joined by my eldest brother and my daughter, trying to decide what totems we can lift from his workroom, grasping at any tangible part of him we can find. Mom said, "Take what you want, but you'd better do it now before the others come or we have to throw it all out."
My mother had declared long ago that she wouldn't clean up his side, so the fingerprints in the dust from last year's excavation are visible, only one tone darker than the areas that have been unperturbed by a dust rag for years. Together the three of us marvel at the quirky things from different decades and different stages of disintegration. My daughter and I benefit from my brother's precious knowledge of the origins and anecdotes bound up in some things. I pick up a coin purse I remember distinctly from my childhood. Dad's pockets had been about at my eye level then, so I could see him fish it from his pocket to make exact change. Like a dim sum dumpling, the tooled leather gathers up in a pucker of arced points. This formation calls to mind the aperture of his Nikon camera as well.
I show it to my daughter, "Isn't this cool? Grampa carried this thing in his pocket when I was a kid."
"It looks bulky," she says.
"Grampa had deep pockets," I reply.
My brother comes over to us, "I know Laur, isn't that awesome? I was just looking at that."
I stiffened my five fingers to squeeze at the base which makes the pouch untwist open.
"Oh, there's something in here." I expand the mouth of it open a bit more, "a black button," I say, then, "Oh - wait - LOOK! a penny!"
I felt like I hit the jacket pot.
"Do you know what a 100 of these make?" Dad would say. "It's not nothing, you know, it all adds up!"
My brother sucks his breath in and gawks, "Oh my God, I just looked and that was NOT in there." My daughter joins him in chorus with equal incredulity, "Me too, it was empty!"
"Well, I guess that means it was meant for me to find," I say, going along with the magical plot.
This single penny had clearly been passed over many times, - or at the least since its marked date of birth of 1981 - for it is not glinting copper, it is furry and green. The coin has been quietly lodging under the circle of leather that gives the bottom of the pouch its form.
I say to my brother, "It must have been under here," as I lift the disc, also tinted green.
"No!" he said, "I looked." "Me too!" said my daughter. I know they might be lying, or, rather, wishing. Wishing the way one tilts the machine so the pinball goes into the pocket. They want me to have this gift from my Dad. It feels too generic though, like standard angel-fare to me. Pennies are overused as harbingers of the deceased, I decide. Still, I return the tarnished coin to its hiding place and pocket the pouch.
Mom has told me that she finds random pennies when she makes her bed. They are from her mother in heaven, she has told me. Sometimes she'd push her luck and pray for more. Lo and behold, those pennies would turn up, a bright copper circle against the taut white bedsheets. I quip to myself that it was likely Dad who tossed them there. He wants her to believe she is looked after always. It's not that I don't believe in her wish for pennies from heaven. It just seems to me that we are simply not always paying close enough attention until suddenly the earth shifts under and around us and we see something with open eyes, eyes that are looking out, not lost or wandering around our inner terrain. It is in these moments when the poetics of coincidence and divine order are in plain view.
You have got to be receptive and maybe a touch wanton, like the kissing mouth of that leather pouch that whispers, 'feed me a penny.'
So I take it. I set the pouch aside next to the bucking donkey coin bank made of cast iron, something that will surely be a nuisance in my carry-on luggage, yet is the heftiest thing of Dad's I can carry without paying for extra baggage on the long flight home. Before I can continue the scavenging, my daughter says, "Mom..." she pauses to make eye contact, "...look." A little box, about two inches long and one inch wide sits perched in the center of her palm. My scalp bristles, "Where did you get that from?"
"It was right here in front, next to this blue bottle," she points to the center shelf.
The prior year I had contemplated snarfing the cobalt glass tincture bottle cast in the bust of George Washington, but decided I might be remiss not to check with the other siblings first.
Two things rain around me in this moment of effulgence. One is that I know my daughter listens even when she pretends not to care. She stores little bits of key information away. She had heard the conversation the previous summer about my wanting pen nibs and Dad not having any. The second floods that dark cellar with love and longing - if these qualities can be imagined in perceptible form, they are not like wind, not like water, just a thick envelopment of feeling. She passes the container to me. The sides of the box are printed with a crisscrossing curly font that spells Spencerian at diagonals. The dilapidated cobalt blue label which runs across the top reads Spencerian Double-Elastic Pen. Size Nº 1 Ex-fine. On the side is a swatch of masking tape, translucent with age and with a red 10¢ written on it. I know immediately that, as debilitated as Dad's body was in this last year, as long as it took him to dress and get into the car and go to work or to run errands for Mom every day - and up to only one week ago, he had made it a mission to find me some pen nibs. He set this box there in plain view for me. It was not there last year. I look to the translucent George Washington to vouch for me. I know this to be fact. My daughter does too. My brother and I look at each other as another wellspring of tears fill our matching blue eyes.
This is the recognition, another kind of magic altogether, that does not require the collusion of words.
Two days later, after the wake and the funeral, after outpourings of more tears, more laughter, and more moving stories that link us all to my father's robust spirit, we are at the graveside for a final send-off. My daughter and I have to go directly to the airport from the burial ground that morning. My sister and her husband take us, but there is time to spare so we agree to go to a greasy-spoon sort of diner in East Gloucester, one that my father might have frequented as a young man. In the car, I tell the story of the coin purse and the pen nibs. When we arrive at the brunch spot, I open the door to step onto the crushed clamshell lot and see a penny beaming there. I hold it up to show off, "See?!"
Now I'm getting greedy, I think and don't press your luck follows.
In honor of Dad we socialize with the employees jovially and gorge on steak tips, scrambled eggs, and bottomless black coffee. I get up to go to the toilet which is wedged kitty-corner in the narrow back area behind the kitchen. I have to step over tubs of butter and cleaning products to access the door which is ajar. Right there, I pause at the threshold as I see that, between my feet, is a shiny penny. I smile and bend to pick it up. OK, now I too can say this is a penny from heaven, I think. But I can't pick it up because the damn thing is glued to the floor! The gag of a clever boss or employee left to yank my chain. A success. This magic moment was surely brought to me by my prank-loving father. The penny in the parking lot could have been random, but this one surely is not. I begin to roll my overfull belly with his chuckle and imagine my grinning cheeks are his as I look into the spattered mirror in the tiny bathroom. My dimples look deeper and he smiles with me, within me.
On the back of the Spencerian Pen nib box the label delivers a prideful warning:
One of the strongest proofs of the great popularity of these Pens, and an undeniable confession of their superiority is, that a number of firms have manufactured, or caused to be made, PENS SIMILAR IN STYLE, for which they claim the same unrivalled perfection of action possessed by the justly CELEBRATED SPENCERIAN PENS. We would, therefore, CAUTION the public against these gross impositions, and state that since July 1st 1871, all boxes containing the genuine Pen have borne a facsimile signature, thus: -- Ivison Blakeman Taylor Co.
Spencerian Pen Co., New York (Successors)
One gross. Made in England