We were in Ms. Bell’s sixth hour health class when Liz leaned over from the table next to me. She stared as I slid pencil over paper.
“Wait,” she said. “Let me see that.”
“See what?” I stopped writing, clicked my mechanical pencil and looked around me.
Long gray tables surrounded us in rows. Two chairs to one table: each seat assigned like nests for us teenage birds needing a place to call home. The bell hadn’t rung yet. Our flock was flapping and squawking, getting our rowdy out before we had to land and learn something.
Liz continued to stare at my notes like she was deciphering a code.
Her name was Elizabeth but everyone called her Liz. I respected her—not just because she was the older, wiser sophomore—but because she called it like she saw it. She had small glasses and dark hair and a sharp tongue that didn’t coat her words in sugar.
"Huh,” Liz finally said, lifting her eyebrows. Confusion clouded her face.
“What?” I asked.
“I just didn’t picture you writing like that,” she said, her tone tinged in disbelief. Not mean-spirited. Matter-of-fact.
“Like, you know. That.” She gestured toward my notebook.
Oh. That. I laughed because I knew what she meant.
My gaze followed hers as I saw my handwriting through her eyes. Not quite chicken scratch, exactly. Less painful than that. Chicken marks, maybe. Chicken trails. Chicken tracks.
“What, you pictured all bubbly and cursive and girly?” I asked.
Ms. Bell was at the front of the classroom now, trying to turn our volume and hormones down so we could discuss the digestive system. If anyone could wrangle our class of misfit toys, it was Ms. Bell.
Liz smiled at me. “Exactly.”
I returned her smile, then shrugged. Class started. I continued taking notes.
Nearly 20 years later, and my handwriting is the same. Usually legible, sometimes questionable. More blurs than bubbles. A mix of slants and straight that combine to create a penmanship that doesn’t exactly sail.
I wouldn’t change it, though. The way we write is as individual as our voices, our fingerprints, our blood types. The font that chooses us.
This Christmas, I collected memories from friends, family and coworkers to create a keepsake book for my mom. People typed loving stories stuffed with nostalgia and gratitude. They sent them to me via email and Facebook.
All except one.
“Do you want to contribute to Mom’s Christmas book?” I asked my dad on the phone. I had explained the gift idea to him a week earlier.
“Um,” he said, taking a breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I will. I’ll get you something.”
I wasn’t sure how this getting of somethings would go. My dad’s not a big computer user, nor one to willingly drill a written well that overflows with emotion.
The day before I planned to send the book to the printer, Dad stopped by my house. In the doorway, he adjusted his U of M hat, reached into the back pocket of his faded blue jeans and pulled out a thin white envelope.
“Here,” he said, handing me the envelope.
“Oh, wow, great.” I felt the paper between my fingers. He wrote it out. “Thanks Dad.” I put the envelope in the top drawer of my nightstand.
Later that night after my dad left, I sat on my bed with the envelope in my lap. I opened the flap and unfolded the sheet of notebook paper. My heart caught in my throat as I recognized my father’s familiar longhand: short, blocky capital letters. The same scrawl once found on folded pieces of lined paper in my lunchbox.
Now I read his words written in black ink. A mix of surprise and tears filled my eyes as I soaked in his sentiments. The end, though. The end was my favorite.
“You are the love of my life,” my dad signed.
He had never expressed that sentiment so boldly before—not with my eyes or ears knowing, anyway. He showed his love through the fixing: flat tires, clogged drains, broken engines. Or the doing: mowing the lawn, picking up my mom’s favorite peanut butter candies, hanging bird feeders outside of her window. But here he was, navigating a new language of love. Words.
I sat on my bed in silence, reading it once, twice, three times. No matter your age, it’s reassuring to know the ones who love you love each other, too. Seeing this written declaration in my dad’s own penmanship was as special as him shouting the words across the city. Maybe even more so. These words were permanent. Able to be read over and over again.
As we all lean into texts and emails, the handwritten can become more special because of its rarity and significance. All it takes is willingness and ink. A signature can mark the start of a job, the end of a marriage, the adoption of a child. Turn a bill into a law. A building into a business.
A pen in hand can move mountains. But handwriting shows as much as it tells: the things we want to see, and the things we don’t.
I was 8-years-old when my Grandma’s breast cancer bombarded her body to the point of harassment. Separated by my innocent ignorance and the miles between Michigan and Minnesota, I didn’t understand how serious her illness had become.
Still, she mustered the energy to write me a birthday card. She wrote in the same regal cursive as familiar to me as her brown eyes. But now the writing was…different. Shaky. These letters were woven with uncertainty, as if cancer had cosigned the card. That’s when I knew that my grandma wasn’t just sick. She was Really Sick.
Maybe that’s why we save the cards. Get the autographs. Write the love letters. Handwriting gives us proof that this person, this situation, this event, existed in our world…even if for a moment.
They were here. See. Look. It’s handwritten.
I still have the birthday card my grandma sent me on my eighth birthday. Sometimes I open it and re-read her words. I trace my fingers along the loops and swirls and feel as if she’s still here. She can’t write these words now, but she did once. Death took her that year, but I still have this piece of her today.
When you love someone, you want to keep every scrap of them you can—especially when they’re gone. How they cross their T’s can become as important as how they crossed our paths. Their handwriting is our artifact. We can hold onto this part of them, even if it's a small stamp on a long timeline.
They were here. See. Look. It’s handwritten.
And somehow, that becomes enough.