Not long ago I ran across a comment written by my late father on the flyleaf of one of his books. It read: “Here’s to the happiest days of my life, spent in the arms of another man’s wife--- my mother’s.” The corn was typical— his humor was always knee-high by July. But what really hit me was the script itself, which I hadn’t seen in years. Its stilted uniform strokes, like a series of clothespins, brought him and his angular ways rearing up before me again like Hamlet’s ghost.
It made me wonder how my handwriting will be perceived after my demise in forty--- make that fifty--- years. Will someone open my old anthologies at a library sale, observe my cramped marginalia, and wonder if I kept my underpants wrapped in pink tissue paper? If I had names for my houseplants? (No to both, though I do have choice monikers for flora that dies on me.)
When we think of what survives us, we don’t often consider penmanship. We focus on deeds and descendants, the paver purchased in the new stadium terrace, the shot of us with a trophy muskellunge. But the humble penstroke, with its habits and quirks, can “fix” our image for posterity as well as any photograph. The circle-dotted “i” or loopy diphthong is a trumpet blast of temperament that echoes through the years long after the hand that wrote it is written off.
For better or worse, not many things individualize you like handwriting. You may as well be writing in blood as ink. George Szell, a conductor so ruthless in his attention to detail that members of the Cleveland Orchestra preferred eating the score to hitting wrong notes, once discovered some mutinous graffiti about himself in a men’s room stall backstage. He promptly hired a handwriting expert to finger the culprit, whose head was used as a wood block in the percussion section the rest of his career.
My own script suggests a Haldol habit. I write as if my hand is in a cast, all characters the same size and clinging to the line for dear life; basically, as I did in fifth grade. (Hopefully this doesn’t prefigure hearing messages from space aliens later on.) For all its uniformity no one can read my longhand, so I print instead. I’d rather be asked if I’m a draftsman than if I still live with my mother.
Ironically, illegible handwriting is often a hallmark of professionalism. As people climb the career ladder their script moves the other way, flattening out. Physicians’ handwriting, for example, could pass for an EKG printout. It’s as much a component of modern health care as the eight-minute office visit, and the reason many pharmacists now minor in Egyptology. Despite pleas for doctors to write prescriptions as if they weren’t expecting an air raid any second, years from now some of us probably will still be getting Pergonol instead of Percodan, with a lot more kids than we bargained for.
Meantime, handwriting style across the blotter is going the way of the doubleheader. The visual appeal of script now seems quaint as a spray of lavender in a saved opera libretto. Scrawled legal pad notes, memos, lists, and daily minder jottings comprise most of our written messages; leisurely letter writing, long a bastion of distinctive longhand, has been whittled to the riffing of chat rooms and e-mail.
This will have consequences for posterity. As Post-Its and pixels replace the intimacy of penmanship, the portrait of us once left by old correspondence will become a connect-the-dots sketch joined by randomly surviving ephemera. The corn inside a musty copy of Tennyson’s Poems, like the grain found in tombs of ancient Egyptians, will acquire archival significance, serving its author in an afterlife.
Who’da thunk it?