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