Writer’s note: The letter shown here is a prop. This story about my father’s letters, however, is true in spirit, and largely in fact.
A man of routine, his letters were never written from home. Time at home began sharply at 6 p.m. and was given to his wife, eventually of sixty years, and to us, his three children who left his home and his town in our early twenties. His letters to us were mostly newsy. He always wrote them on white paper which rested on the glass counter off to one side of his long, narrow furniture store, He sat on a rickety stool. He could have repaired that stool as he was handy with such things, or selected a new one since he sold a variety of stools, but he chose this ancient relic in need of re-gluing that swayed with his words. Always teased about that stool by us and by mother, he argued that its creaks and groans were words understood only by them. In his mind, the stool was his writing partner. Words were chosen carefully and crafted in broad black script by the two of them over their many years together.
He and his stool composed letters to manufacturers, letters to his sister, and letters to his children. His descriptions flowed over and around customers who came into his furniture store during the day to browse or buy. He preferred them to buy, of course. He didn’t follow them around the store. He let them browse, and he wrote about their behaviors, which were usually what one expects of customers, but occasionally the odd duck would arouse his humor, and he was a funny man.
His letters were as much about his captivation with form and visual beauty of penmanship as with news. The formation of letters and words with haughty flourishes and steep peaks and swooning u’s and y’s were as much cursive art as news of his and mother’s day. His fat red fountain pen was legend in our family. He would invite me to watch him fill it from the ink bottle. That, too, was a ritual he and his stool shared. Our father would settle the bottle of black ink on the glass counter and sidle the golden tip of his fat red pen into the reservoir and lift the gold lever built into the side of the instrument. My father, gingerly wielding the lever, would cause his pen to drink like a humped camel from the bottle and fill its black rubber bladder with the fluid that formed his words. It was a delicate, nearly religious experience. I wish I had asked my father why the filling of his pen was such an important ritual, but I didn’t. I imagine now he would have had much to tell me.
On the occasion of one of his pen-fillings, I asked him what his favorite word was, and without hesitation, he replied, “swimming.” “Why?” I asked. “What’s so special about that word?” With his fat, full pen held in his hand properly, with the golden blade extending the proper distance from his fingertips, he swirled out the word “swimming” on a clean sheet of letterhead. His beige paper was expensive, so I knew this lesson was important. The word on the beige paper was at once a mountain range of peaks and valleys. It was a brook of swells and waves formed by w’s and m’s and n’s and i’s excited by the wind. My father painted the word “swimming” for me.
When I’m missing my father, like this morning, with my dime store pen, I write his word. Swimming. I can’t swirl the peaks and valleys and and ripples the way he did, but for the long moment when my pen is trying to be his pen, we are sitting together at the glass counter.
A cursive “swimming” has been my favorite word since that day in my father’s store. I see the glass counter and beige paper and his strong hand holding his fat red pen. Wherever I am, and I’m missing him, I write out his word. He and I have shared his favorite word hundreds of times over the years.
By Tim Hoyt
Tim says “It seems like I’ve been an Encore and now OLLI member ever since Uncle Rex punctured his wrist on the cow yoke. I retired from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in 1999, and moved to NC a year later. I grudgingly maintain our house and yard in fair shape, and happily stay in touch with the kids in Wisconsin via “dad’s daily letter.” But mostly, I focus on keeping my mind in good shape with OLLI classes and by writing. Lots and lots of writing. Tim leads three Special Interest Groups – Readers Theater, OLLI Questions Across the Spectrum and the OLLI Family Stories Writers Group