Wednesday, February 11, 2009


A fountain pen is a time machine I can hold in my hand. Intimate and forgiving, the nib of a fountain pen is as far from a computer terminal as one can get.

As I wrap my fingers around its chunky body, I am once again 11 years old. a student at South Grove Elementary School in Syosset, Long Island. I live on the same block and walk home for lunch.

I am in the sixth grade. More importantly, I am in Mrs. Gold’s class. Mrs. Gold—a diminutive, exuberant woman of indeterminate age and unapproachable standards.

Those were the final days of penmanship, and Mrs. Gold believed its purpose could only be served by the banishment of the ballpoint pen. Of course, this was before the advent of the felt-tipped, roller ball ersatz fountain pens, all of which she would have abhorred.

In Mrs. Gold’s class, everyone wrote with a fountain pen. She felt it was the natural way to encourage proper writing form. For Mrs. Gold, form preceded function. She believed physical clarity would lead to mental clarity, and although I would have died rather than admit it at the time, she was right.

Today fountain pens have been relegated to a status item, pulled from a pocket or briefcase, its profile as recognizable as that of a Jaguar. What they contain in status, they lose in practicality. They leak into the pockets of custom-made shirts. They don’t work on the carbonless paper that clutters our life and times. They can’t send e-mail.

So what?

Picking up your fountain pen is like sliding into a well-worn pair of shoes. The wearing down of the nib is as individual as fingerprints. It not only fits; it fits only you. That’s not something to shrug off in this mass-produced world. As someone who made her living tied to a computer, I can say with some authority that it’s just not the same as taking pen in hand. Perhaps that’s why I still write my journal the old-fashioned way, by pressing pen to paper.

I can pick up a journal from any year and tell my emotional state just by the handwriting of a particular entry. Was I pressing down in a fury or skipping lightly across the page with joy? Was I rushed or wallowing in the luxury of time? I cannot imagine writing a love letter, a condolence letter or even a “Dear John” letter with anything else. Yet, at the same time, I could not imagine writing my newspaper column on anything but a computer, so I crank it up as I wait.

I find myself unexpectedly spending a Friday evening in February in the surgical waiting room at Princeton Hospital. They say my father’s emergency surgery for a bowel blockage should take about three hours. It takes in excess of four. As my mother leafs through a newspaper and fidgets nervously, I find myself shifting mentally back and forth in time. I’m not sure why I come up for air in Mrs. Gold’s class.

Maybe because it was the last time I felt really carefree, really sure of myself both physically and mentally. I awoke each morning sure of my place in the scheme of things. Mrs. Gold saw to that. And if I came up short, there was always that tall, strong and handsome dad who could make anything right.

Then came junior high and later the complexities and shades of the adult world. One in which fathers get old and frail, and where, if things are to be made right, it’s up to you to do it yourself. In that real world, things sometimes go too wrong for anyone to make right—even dads, even doctors. So, I cling to the illusion of a safe harbor, a quick trip back to Mrs. Gold’s class and the time in which certainty flourished.

The day after surgery my dad sits up in bed and kisses me goodbye as I leave for home. He is about to try and walk a few steps. I smile and wave as I walk out the door. I’m home about an hour when the calls start. One by one, his organs are shutting down, my mom says. Before I can return, I answer the phone to hear the surgeon’s distraught voice: “Roberta, I don’t know what happened. He’s gone.” At that very moment, all I want is to go back in time, to really give my dad a serious hug as he went into surgery, instead of shrugging off his emotional embrace. That was February 11, 1995. And in the past 14 years, these feelings have only grown.

What I need is a time machine, one I can hold in my hand. I need to go back to tell them--Mrs. Gold and my dad—thanks for the priceless gift of childhood security, a shield for all my days on this earth.

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