My son didn’t see the need to sign the letter of apology to the University.
“I’ll email it with my name typed on the bottom. That will be fine.” He pressed send on his laptop and clicked it shut.
“No one signs letters anymore, “ he said matter of factly.
He was right. No one does sign letters, or checks, or birthday wishes on Facebook. I realized I didn’t know what my son’s signature looks like. And when was the last time I signed an actual piece of paper? Have we filed our individual signatures away with our old photos and record albums?
Penmanship was as important a subject as mathematics and grammar when I was growing up in the 1960s. I couldn’t wait to be a third grader and carry the thick, clean notebook of specially lined paper that would be the canvas for my cursive writing. I’d practice for hours, carefully forming the loops of capital Gs and Ls, Bs and Ys, until my pen flowed across the pages in an ink dance. I agonized over every letter, gripped the pen with such deliberateness I had a permanent, dark, pen dent on the inner side of my pointer finger for the next 10 years. I envied Stacey Perlman, whose name started with the fancier S instead of my boring, bloated D.
“Your signature tells as much about your character as your actions,” my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Meredith insisted. He was a short, tidy man, who drank herbal tea before it was popular and banged out show tunes on the little wood piano he kept handy next to the blackboard. He was a stickler for good manners and called everyone Miss and Master. He was the kind of teacher you remember your entire life.
“If you want to make your mark, “ he encouraged, “start with beautiful handwriting and a signature you can call your own.” He stood tall then, his back to us. NORRIS MEREDITH he would write in swooping glory, the chalk clicking against the blackboard.
We’d bend our heads and lift our elbows as we attempted to give form and expressiveness to our names. Debra. I swirled the tail of the D. Debra. I linked the b and the r with precision. Debra. My A would end with a whimsical curl.
I signed hundreds of letters throughout my school years. Notes passed in class.. Thank you cards and pen pal correspondence. Absent notes I forged, perfecting my mother’s name — Pearl with an extra large P — when I cut out of Biology class and went to the Mall instead. My handwriting through those years tells the story of my evolution. I dotted my i’s with little hearts in the 9th grade, gave up the foolishness of trying to attach the D to the e by the end of tenth, and rebelliously abandoned the traditional slant, for a slight tilt, around my 17th birthday. By the time I graduated high school, I had my John Hancock down. I was a person. And over the last four decades, through life’s transformations from motherhood to middle age, my signature remains the same; it is the simple, yet unique proof I exist.
I was troubled by my son’s lack of interest in his own signature. I wasn’t willing to chalk it up to the new world, like I had so many other things. I wanted to change his mind about its importance but I didn’t know how. Then I remembered my grandmother, my wonderful, cranky grandma whose legacy is a copper Russian Samavoir that sits in my mother’s living room and an unforgettable recipe for chocolate chip mandel l bread. My grandmother , who didn’t write great novels or paint glorious pictures or lead a crusade for social issues. My grandmother, Evelyn, who by practical standards was as ordinary as they come.
“Why are we here?” Alec asked as we stepped on to the strip of grass and stood in front of my grandmother’s grave. “Is it her birthday?”
“We’re just visiting.”
I reached down to pick up two rocks from the dirt mound to my right. I handed the larger one to Alec.
“It is customary to place a stone on the grave when you visit,” I explained.
He looked around.
“Up there,” he pointed to the grey marble headstone that carried the last name STOCK.
“No. Over there.” I turned and pointed to the small foot stone at the end of the grave. “Place your rock on that.”
Alec walked over tentatively. He didn’t like any of this but he bent down and brushed away some dirt with the palm of his hand, a gesture I’m certain he picked up from a movie scene.
“Wow.” He was startled. “What’s this? Did she write this?” He pointed and leaned back bit.
I knelt down next to him and eyed the foot stone. There she was. Evelyn Stock. Her shaky name is etched forever in that beautiful marble. The signature my mother paid extra to have engraved on her footstone. The cursive carries her voice, her laugh, her black furry coat and her delicious meatloaf. Every birthday card and check she ever signed live in that script. Her signature. Her indelible mark on the world.
I looked at Alec.
“That’s pretty cool,” he nodded and gently placed the stone within the lopsided loop of Evelyn Stock’s lowercase Y.