My mother was the only person I’ve ever known who used a pencil down to its end.
Even now, 10 years after her death, I come across these stubby reminders in my kitchen drawer, or stuck in the recesses of an old desk. They all look the same. Yellow wooden pencils, no more than 4 inches long. Sometimes the brand has been sharpened away, and only the #2 stamp remains.
Sitting at the top like an oversize crown, there’s always a thick triangular eraser cap, the kind you push over the end of a pencil when its original eraser is gone, or worn down so much that metal scratches paper when you use it. The only time I needed those was in elementary school, when I bit the erasers off my pencils. I liked feeling the dry rubber between my teeth, and licking the bumpy texture left behind on the eraser stub.
But my mother’s eraser caps were earned honestly. Between her crossword puzzle habit, and balancing her checkbook, she wore an eraser away long before the pencil had earned its keep. She’d sit at the kitchen table, sputtering about 3 cents she couldn’t find on her bank statement. “Why does it matter?” I’d challenge, but the expression of delight on her face when she found it answered that.
“Mom, we can afford a new pencil” I’d tease, pulling a long yellow one from my school backpack.
“But I don’t need it” she’d reply. “This one is fine.”
And so, for her, it was. With its triangular eraser cap, it was good to go until it shrank below three inches, and began sliding off her knuckle and into the crook of her thumb. “OK, I guess it’s time to throw this one out” she’d sigh. Then she’d rescue one I left behind, maybe one I’d chewed, or one I had abandoned simply for the fresh smell of new lead.
I loved the feel of a new pencil, smooth and tight in my grip. I loved its long elegance, rising above my hand, and dancing its own reply to the words I wrote. No bite marks of concentration on its side, it made me feel like I was starting fresh; everything had to be better when I picked it up. A new pencil seemed to carry its own inspiration, its own wonderful creation, just waiting to be released.
I’ve always been good at beginning things. New diets, new exercise programs, new strategies for organizing my life. I am good at starting.
But it was my mother who was good at finishing. Good at following through, at persisting, at seeing things out to their natural end. My mother was good at holding on.
It is not thrift that makes me place these small pencils back in the drawer next to my long elegant writing tools whenever I find them now. It is something else. It’s the chance to hear her gentle voice once again reminding me: “Finish what you start, use what you have, appreciate what is there in front of you.
“Hold on, my dear, hold on.”
Mary E. Plouffe raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology.She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com
My son sorts through grade school papers,
dangling remains of science projects,
eighteen years of collectibles. Picks
up old toys like a diviner, shifts
them from hand to hand pulling out
private dreams with a smile,
as if I wasn’t here or there.
He realigns his history –
short stacks across the bedroom floor
place Legos with baseball cards,
magical dice next to seashells.
Lambie Pie off alone, plastic eyes fixed in space.
He says he wants to be at college already.
Wants this part over. As he raises an old
running shoe with triumphant care,
we both laugh. Then he slips on his headphones and we practice leavings. I go to the window.
Down in the yard the plants assemble themselves
for autumn. Take the temperature of the air.
Count the hours of light left in their day.
Patricia Bollin’s poetry has appeared in print and online publications including: Pearl, The Clackamas Review, The Fourth River, Tulane Review, Oregon Literary Review and Mezzo Cammin. Her book reviews have appeared in CALYX and NW Writers. She is the mother of two adult children.
It is the last day of summer school. He is taking history to get ahead in his junior year. As soon as I wake, he asks me to re-pin the pant legs of his father’s suit. When I am finished, he paces in front of the mirror, back straight. On a normal day, I am sure he never looks into the mirror.
“In the Chinese Army, they used to put pins in the soldier’s collars so they would stand tall,” he informs me.
“That wouldn’t be very comfortable for you.” He has a congenital curvature in his spine that causes him to slouch.
He tries putting his speech notes into the outer pocket of the jacket, wondering aloud why it isn’t a real pocket. I show him the inner breast pocket.
On the way to school, I notice his cheeks, normally a little scruffy even on the days he runs a razor over them, are cleanly shaven. Cued as we pass the vet’s office, he reminds me his cat needs her shots and that she needs more litter. I think about the kind of father he might someday be.
He is still talking as we wait at the last light before I drop him off, regaling me with hockey stats and strategizing about his fantasy hockey line-up. He plans to take his driving test after summer school, and I know to savor every word. He is my youngest, and my days as Taxi Mom are numbered.
“Your group presents first?”
“So in about an hour, you can relax.”
“Yeah, it’s almost over.”
I watch him cross the street in the rear view mirror. He stands tall, gliding across the street in his father’s shoes, while I wait for the tears to subside.
Sharyl Collin practices writing, photography and music. She didn’t realize she was a poet until surprised by the birth of her first poem at the age of 50. She has since completed two chapbooks and a full length collection, Learning to Peel Neapolitan. Her poems have appeared The Intentional, Mason’s Road Literary Journal, *82 Review, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and Lummox.
After the birth of my first son, I left the hospital a strong, proud woman, emerging victorious from a natural childbirth with her head held high and a sweet little baby swaddled up tight as a burrito in her arms.
Seven days later, I emerged from the bathroom in my husband’s paper-thin, blue plaid, old man robe, heavy bags settled in for a long vacation under my eyes. A twenty-minute nap on freshly washed hair had produced a limp, air-dried nest with a flat, matted spot in the back. In my hands, all the milk I could muster from an underproductive and disappointing attempt at pumping breast milk for my now screaming little barracuda who was struggling to latch on and furious when the milk let-down wasn’t instantaneous. (I tried, little buddy, I really did.)
I shuffled towards the kitchen, mopping the dirty hardwood floors with my standard hospital-issue non-skid slipper socks. My sisters were playing with the baby in the living room, sitting pretty in their fitted hoodies and yoga pants, still springy and snug from being freshly laundered. I wore department store pajama pants, too short in length, too tight in the waist, and entirely too loose in the caboose. Beneath my homeless attire—underwear the size of Texas and a nursing bra hanging loosely over my small chest. This left ample space for my one reprieve from breastfeeding torture–frozen cabbage leaves.
I placed a large leaf on each breast and shuffled into the living room. One of my sisters looked up, pity teeming in their eyes. “You have a piece of cabbage sticking out of your bra.”
Two years later, I shudder as I pull my cardigan closed, hurrying past the dewy cabbage heads in the grocery store. My son giggles from the cart as we press on.
Jennifer Free is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh. She enjoys building “couch tents” with her 2-year-old son and going to music festivals with her husband, who has been said to resemble a hippie version of Stephen King. If you’d like to join her at a festival or just want to drop her a line, she can be reached at www.jenniferefree.com.