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Life In Words: My Mother’s Handwriting

Life In Words: My Mother’s Handwriting

It gets better in ways but not exactly. Nine months after we sat by her bedside just two days after she entered the hospital and watched her last breath, I can now flip through photographs and see fragments of her being and a glimpse of the fire that raged in her five foot body without falling apart. In a way, images are less painful. Moments of a shared past but only shadows of all the senses correlated to the photo. Emotions. Smells. Sounds. Only a part of the past remains on a 4 X 6 heavy stock page.

There are times where the photographs can stimulate a memory hidden somewhere in the backrooms of my psyche. A memory of senses rather than sense. Even words spoken and the meat grilled and the nostalgia of a time before student loans, bedtimes, and falling asleep at 9pm. However, the reality remains. Only a distant part of her, a distant part of my past, resides in the image.

The other day, my dad hauled in box after box of Mom’s books and shoved them in one of the backrooms of the office. He asked if I wanted them and, naturally, I said yes. He figured as much since I am a “writer” and have a degree in English so, by default, I am required to keep books. During my downtime at work, I carried a box or two back to my office and decided to go through them, one by one, and see if any could fetch a decent price online or if they were destined for Half Price Books or, ultimately, the Goodwill. Mom and my sister shared the same taste in books. Stack after stack of Christian, historical romance novels and an eclectic variety of cook books and knitting how-tos made up most of the collection. Nothing worth anything as far as making a profit reselling used books. Definitely nothing I would place in my collection.

Early on in the endeavor, I came across a cache of hard covered, thin books conspicuously absent of true titles. Thinking little of them, I tossed them on my desk and perused the covers, stacking them around me like columns. Near the end of the first box, I spied the small, nameless group of books against the computer monitor. I lifted the four or five books onto my lap and, as I suspected by their ambiguous covers, they were journals. Travel journals. A part of me wondered if I should intrude on my deceased mother’s privacy but then the ethics of whether this is applicable to someone who no longer is around came to mind. I figured she wouldn’t care since she’s got better things to do.

The first journal recounted, day by day, our first trip to Europe which we took with my dad’s parents. A quite memorable trip since my grandmother had an obsession with castles and my redneck grandfather wanted to “cold cock” every “foreigner” he came across. Mainly the French. I read through the first few days and found those somber parts of me I seem to try and crush on a daily basis. Parts I’ve learned to suppress with pictures. But looking at the curve of her handwriting, I lost myself.

I closed the door and let the grief hidden within me pour out in the silence. Much like grief’s modus operandi, it moves like an assassin, striking at times when you recently told yourself how well you are doing with this whole grief business. Composing myself, I returned to the journals. The words themselves did not affect me. What I was reading was inconsequential. Yes, the fond memories of the trip came back to me but it was more than just a sweet memory. The loss came in the handwriting. The words became so personal, so intimate, I wept as I followed their dance. Not the words meaning but the words themselves. In the aesthetics of her handwritten journal, I felt a close connection that pictures can’t convey. I imagined her seated in her bathrobe on one of the many hotels or B and B’s of the Scottish countryside or leaning against the window on one of the train rides through Italy, gripping her pen with her arthritic thumbs, pressing into the page and funneling her thoughts, funneling a portion of her soul, onto the page. Reading glasses resting near the end of her nose.

I discovered in that moment the written word holds a tremendous power, not in the meaning of words, but in seeing the essence of someone’s soul exhibited in written form. Our handwriting transfers from a place beyond the corporeal. The hand, the fingers, the pen only conduits of a more ontological source. If these journals had been typed, their impact would not have been lost. Almost as if she didn’t write them. I know she would have written them but the static shapes of the letters and the pale backdrop, the perfect uniformity and spell checking, would not truly be her. Humans are complex and it is exhibited in trying to decipher the words they are trying to write. Is that an A or an O? L or I?

Just like her writing, my Mother was complex, sometimes hard to decipher, often times not sure what she was talking about. Consumed with the minutiae of life. Her conversations often spiraled out of control due to the details and context each sentence carried until she lost track of where she was headed. But she cared about the moments most of us let slip away and she wrote them down, with her own hand, to preserve for herself those precious memories with her family. To return to moments of better days.

When she wrote about her granddaughters, the curves and swoops and movement of her writing seemed more fluid and graceful. Movements of love channeled through her fingertips, possibly the arthritic thumbs no longer aching, as she talked about each one with an admiration for who they were and, in a way, who she believed they would become. A pride even I, the favorite, couldn’t fully give her.

I still look at pictures and videos of my mother occasionally. But I can’t hold back how much I miss her when I ride the roads of her handwriting. The movements only reinforce the reality of her being gone and it aches like her thumbs in my chest. Still, I am thankful for those travel journals and the parts of her that still reside in the ink. A trail of her laugh that echoed into the 12 foot ceilings or the way she held the ladle when she made clam chowder. Black as the char she always seemed to leave on the burgers when she grilled. Her written words so fluid, her vivacity carries over without a sound in the leg of her Q or the ascension of her L. The artistry of her love and her vision mirrored in the threading of each letter together. Connected in some way like the stamp she left on those who knew her.

The journals currently sit in my bookshelf. The only ones I kept of the seven or eight boxes I spent hours going through. The rest found new homes on second hand shelves thought her handwritten name sits somewhere between the title page and the back of the cover. Perhaps, whoever buys those Francine Rivers or Gilbert Morris novels might turn to the first page and see my mother’s name scrawled across the top and, for the briefest of moments, pause. Maybe captured by the spark inherit in the trail of her voice on the page.

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N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs, The Disciple, and the children's book, Moses Jones and the Case of the Missing Sneaker. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento and his work has appeared in issues of Fiction Southeast, The Grief Diaries, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, Transition Magazine, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three children and teaches writing at American River College.

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