My handwriting’s always been an embarrassment. Way back in elementary school, while most of the others were developing a clear, sometimes graceful hand (especially the girls), my penmanship showed no improvement.
That’s what it said on my report card, time after time “Penmanship: Shows no improvement.” (Once it wasn’t “no,” but “little.” That was a banner month.) And of course each one of those report cards was signed by the nun-of-that-year with the precision and clarity of a steel engraving. And then it was countersigned by my mother in her lovely hand, “Catherine G. Atwell,” with soaring capital letters that I could love (as I did her) but never hope to imitate.
But I sweated on, wrecking points (we’d begun with steeltip pens, mind you, dipping them in ink wells built into the desk) and trying to produce enough legibility that I’d eventually be able to write a thank-you card or one of sympathy without requiring the recipient to use a magnifying glass or a translator.
Despite scrawling reams of class notes at top speed (some profs are sadists when they lecture), I did manage some improvements in legibility.
And when, in my own college career, I ended up a dean, I could produce a signature on certificates and diplomas that was downright decent. But I still couldn’t carry on at length without my deanly hand collapsing into the disreputable. I was good for a sprint, you see, but not at running the distance. As they say these days, Fuhgetaboutit!
Well, I got through my professional years backed up by a superb secretary. She’d produce a beautiful typescript from my dictation. And then I’d sign the letter or whatever on the space she’d left me, just about a high-falutin’ typing of my name and title. Bless Peggy! She probably should have been awarded part of my retirement, Once I was living in Fly Creek, I thought penmanship pressure was over. And it largely was. Bruce Hall’s didn’t much care how clear my signature was, and neither did Agway or the bank or Doubleday or the Fly Creek General Store. Everybody knew me. I probably could have signed with the stomp of an inked fist and nobody would have cared.
But I didn’t have to. I still had a pretty good signature, relic of my deanly days. And I felt superior when I stood in line behind a Bassett doc and saw him or her sign with a dash or a scrawl that didn’t begin to look like a name. I’m guessing, though, that downgrading one’s signature is taught in medical school, since they all do it. I must ask a few.
Well, whatever smugness was mine is now gone. Parkinsonism has reduced my handwriting to hieroglyphics, and my signature is usually as bad as any doc’s.
If I try to write a short formal note, I start the first line with strong intentions and deliberate control. “Keep those letters large and readable,” I coacme. But halfway along the first line I’ve largely lost control.
I’ve dropped the reins and I’m being run away with. Worse, my letters are getting smaller and smaller; halfway along the first line they’ve become a track of ants — not big ones, but the tiny black ones that parade out of the kitchen wainscoting and attack the sugar canister.
Oh, what would the sisters say? What, especially, would that largish fourth-grade nun say, the one that labored so hard to make me write presentably? She’d give me extra Palmermethod exercises of endlessly repeated o’s and ovals and diagonal lines joined at either top or bottom. Once, in desperation, she leaned over me from behind, took my sweaty hand firmly in hers, and guided my scratchy steel-tip across the lined paper.
Now, I mentioned that she was a largish nun; not so much in height but in bulk. It was hard to tell her size because nuns of that time were enveloped in enough black serge to stock a drygoods shop; and her order also had a helmet of tightly fitted, fiercely starched linen, plus a veil liner of the same stuff, plus a broad panel of it that extended from shoulder to shoulder and was meant to camouflage anything womanly about them.
But when Sister Anonymia, standing behind seated me, leaned over in desperation and grabbed my pen hand, she squashed herself against my back.
Sweet mother of pearl! There were bosoms in there! Nuns had bosoms! My heart, only 10 years in use and in great shape, nearly stopped. But Sister pressed on, literally and figuratively.
“I can’t see why you can’t get something so simple, Jimmy!” She said this as her hand guided mine through the circles and ovals and diagonals. “Are you paying attention? Just what are you thinking of?”
Well, Sister, it sure as hell wasn’t the Palmer Method! Now, what about the Blue Rabbit in the headline? That, friends, is what’s saved my signature from Parkinsonism, at least so far. I’ll tell you about it in the next column.