The Intimate Hand

Response to Daily Prompt: Handwriting

In these days of digital communication, it is a rare and joyous occasion when I receive a hand-written letter. It is far more personal than a typed letter of cold, perfectly-formed characters lying inert on stark white paper with a signature scrawled at the end. But even these have more intimacy than an e-mail or—worse—a  text message of ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG.’ No. Except for face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, handwriting is the only form of communicating that conveys the innate character of the other person as an integral part of the message.

I treat a hand-written letter, with its pen and ink, as a huge gift of someone’s time and affection. Such letters begin with someone’s desire to tell me something. Their heart’s desire becomes a thought, leading to an impulse to pick up a pen and sheet of paper. And then their fingers grasp the pen, their hand moves in obedience to the commands of their head and heart. Ink flows across the sheet of paper, across the watermarks, across time and space in distinctive cursive lines, a weaver’s tapestry embracing me in thoughts and emotions.

The joy of a handwritten letterl
The joy of a handwritten letter.

When the postman leaves the envelope in my box, I open it with feelings of expectation, of joy, a feeling of being chosen, special, because someone made the effort to write a message to me instead of banging it out hastily on a computer. Their fingerprints, their DNA, is on the paper, in the words as much as the ink. Handwriting is to the essence of personal communication what scent is to the identity of a flower.

Even without a signature, I know who wrote the letters in the family collection I curate for eventual donation to the historical society. My grandfather’s letters—hastily typed on cheap paper with two fingers of each hand—link skipped letters together with inked lines. His typed-over errors are interlaced with written corrections and annotations. Grandpa’s handwriting was as hasty as his typing because all must be done yesterday. He could never get to the mail box fast enough.

Dad's writing.
Dad’s writing.

My Dad wrote the way he walked, worked, and swam in strong, graceful pen strokes slanted forward along even lines. His autography has a rhythm as visually distinctive as his walk. He wrote factually, reporting, narrating and describing the look of things, the course of the action. His extroversion shone through with nary a trace of personal reflection. It’s a writing style he learned from his father, a newspaper editor, and then honed as a sports stringer in high school and college.

My mother's hand.
My mother’s hand.

Mom’s writing slanted back on itself in open loops. Her hand moved across the page in short bursts, pausing now and then to think, ponder, then back up and rephrase. She wasn’t given to reportage; she wrote repartee, playing with the ideas and words as if in direct conversation. That’s how her mind worked, that’s how she talked, that’s why people loved her. She often sprinkled French words and phrases here and there in letters to her brother and aunt. That’s the mark of an educated woman from an upper class family, ‘n’est pas?’

My uncle's autography.
My uncle’s autography.

My uncle—Mom’s brother—seldom penned a letter but when he did, he drew his words more than wrote them. He was an artist who held his pen between his thumb and fingers as if it were a brush and then dabbed the words on the page with a idiosyncratic calligraphy in keeping with his other eccentricities. Like my mother’s letters, he wrote informally, as if living in the moment, writing for emotional effect rather than merely relay information.

My brother's script.
My brother’s script.

Schools stopped teaching cursive penmanship several decades ago and contemporary college students don’t write cursive and many can’t read it. This is a problem for those who need to read handwritten documents. I learned to write cursive in grade school but my daughters didn’t. My eldest writes by printing in a distinctive style and so does my younger brother. My own writing has assumed a distinctive form and style over the years. Though distinctive it is legible—at least when I’m not in a hurry. Like my father’s hand, my writing slants forward, it’s patterns rhythmic but the letters are sharper and as much drawn as written.

In my work as a historian, I have read thousands of letters written by hundreds of people. No two scribblers have the same style. Each one has penmanship that reflects their personality—at least I associate the personality with the autography—which is how I know the deceased. And that brings me to what we are losing in the age of digital communication. (And you may say—oh, there he goes, talking about ‘the good old days.’) Communication written by hand conveys something that writing by a machine can never convey. When my Dad was a legislator, he often dictated personal letters out of convenience. The ‘personality; that came through dictation wasn’t the one I knew from handwritten letters.

My writing.
My writing.

When I want to express what is deepest inside, I must write in longhand. The kinetic connection of fingers, hand, arm, brain and heart releases whatever truth lies waiting to be told. Typing or writing on my laptop throws a veil over my feelings and my expression is weaker, more qualified, less true. Only in writing longhand can I write what is most true.

You may disagree but, before you do, try writing longhand and notice the difference in what you feel, and the power of the words you use to say it.



March Madness – Minnesota’s tournament blizzards

It’s now late March, the Girls Basketball tournament just finished in Minneapolis while a major snowstorm has begun crawling across southern Minnesota where I grew up. These blizzards often come in just after a prolonged thaw, when most of the snow is gone. The storms often begin warm and wet, with lightning and thunder before they dump heavy snow with lightning. Snow comes down on a driving wind that piles up drifts four-five-six feet high. March snowstorms aren’t rare—they’re normal—yet there is something especially wonderful about them. They’re massive and unpredictable.

During my childhood, the weather reports were general—at best. An accurate forecast in the 1950s came out in phrases like: “Scattered showers are possible across southern Minnesota,” or “There’s a chance of snow tonight with strong northwest winds.” That was about as close as a forecast came to what actually happened. Weather satellites, Doppler radar, and climate models added more detail but uncertainty remains.

Farmers I knew didn’t rely on the Farmer’s Almanac—only town people mentioned it. When it came to the weather, everyone was his own forecaster, and pretty much took his bearings from things we all understood—the temperature, the smell of the wind (did it smell damp), the kinds of clouds, the wind direction, whether the velocity was rising or dying, and whether the clouds moved with, against, or across the wind.

For a ten-year-old like me, the weather was a great mystery, a powerful force living just over the horizon. In the spring of my tenth year, we had a string of blizzards that began in February and ended near the end of March. Snow blocked our county road and driveway for several days each week before the county plow got through.

By the time the road opened, the forecasters were hinting at more snow in a few days. We hurried to town in the pick-up to buy groceries and anything else we needed—just in case. The next morning, I waited at the top of our driveway for the school bus. The temperature hovered at freezing and the damp air and south wind foretold approaching weather. School let out right after lunch the next day as heavy snow fell. Our bus slipped and skidded slowly along the roads, dropping off students who almost immediately vanished from sight in the swirling flakes.

All night, the wind howled in the treetops, the thermometer held steady at 32° F, and wind-driven snowflakes hissed against the window panes. I woke up in the morning confident ‘they’ wouldn’t cancel school. Mom turned on the radio at breakfast. In those days, we listened to WCCO, the CBS A.M. radio out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over Rice Krispies and toast, I listened eagerly to hear the announcer mention ‘Janesville’ on the list of closed schools. Another day to read pulp western novels.

Weekly blizzards continued until late March and each one kept us snowed in for several days at a time.  I missed about half of the school days that month, not that I cared. Drifts piled up, and one across our driveway stood at least six feet high. By mid-March, the snow was too deep for Dad to clear the driveway with the Ford tractor and scoop. He called a man with a bulldozer and the ‘Cat’ worked hard to push back the dense drifts—until the next blizzard closed the road and driveway five days later.

Like Paul Bunyan, these spring blizzards have gained legendary status among Minnesotans. They roar in from the Great Plains about the time high school teams assemble in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the state basketball tournament. Sometimes the teams had to stay a day or two extra before the roads opened. It didn’t take long for Minnesotans to connect basketball tournaments and spring blizzards.

While snow falls in Minnesota, I write this from southern Mexico, and feel the excitement of my ten-year-old self once more. For a day, at least, I wish myself back at the farm, feeling secure inside the old house, and watching the thick veil of blowing snow obscure my view of the woods along the river. In a day or two, the sun will eat up the drifts, and then spring will come, and March madness will end.






A persistent memory

April 10, 1947. Home.
April 10, 1947. We reach a new home.

My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.

This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.

I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.

County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.

Warm air, sun, thawing ground, April 1947.
Warm air, sun, thawing ground.

Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.

Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.

A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.

The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.

After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.

Barn of indistinct color
A barn of indistinct color

They name it The River Farm.

Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.

He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.

I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.

The farm as I leave it to others.
The farm that rims my childhood.

But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.



Days of Giving Thanks

Late November. This is the perfect season for a day of thanksgiving – at least in Minnesota. Autumn is over, except on the calendar. The day for giving thanks comes at the end of harvest, as it should. Now the season’s harvest of corn, oats and soybeans – the fruits of considerable cost, risk, and sweat – was secure in the bins and cribs. Unless snow came early, we usually finished plowing most of the stubble. November days are cold, the sky is cloudy most of the time, occasional skiffs of snow blow through and winter lurks just over the western horizon. It’s the kind of weather that draws us closer to each other. Thanksgiving Day punctuated our year far more than did Christmas. Continue reading “Days of Giving Thanks”

Telephones and Sloppy Joes, Five Scenes from Childhood

I wasn’t quite seven years-old when the lineman from the phone company in Janesville, Minnesota, installed a wooden box – a Western Electric – on the living room wall. A crank projected from the right side, and the receiver hung in its cradle on the left. The daffodil-shaped mouthpiece jutted from the front. It looked like a museum piece Alexander Graham Bell himself had used – even when it was new. We moved onto the farm in 1947 but had to wait until 1950 to get it when post-war shortages ended. When we needed to call, we used our neighbor’s phone. The neighbors on either side of us had phone service from two different towns and the ten miles between the towns necessitated an expensive ‘long distance’ connection. At the time, we had the best of both worlds. We shared our phone line with 11 parties. Our number – 57F4 – had four rings.

My parents called by lifting the receiver and listening to make certain no one was on the line. Then then they cranked to call the operator – a pleasant-voiced woman called ‘Central.’ They gave her the number and she made the connections. When any of the others received a call, our phone rang too. My parents soon knew the other parties’ ring pattern. Rings invited snooping and sometimes my parents asked eavesdroppers to stop breathing loudly when they listened in! Lightning nearby made the phone’s bell ‘ding.’ Decades before Doppler radar, we knew an approaching storm’s ferocity from the frequency of the ‘dings.’ This wooden box with the daffodil served us for 15 years. In the early 1960’s the company added direct dialing and soon everyone had a private line and a rotary phone. The advent of private lines ended phone-sharing and eavesdropping, and with it, we all lost some of the close-knit feeling of being a community of farmers who knew each other’s business (discretely, of course). Privacy replaced community.

For a short time in my young life, I feared the telephone in certain weather. As a boy of ten or so, I feared lightning. Not the string lightning that zapped the earth from cloud to ground. I liked to watch that! No, I feared something I had never seen, and – so far – have yet to see. My fear began with an eerie story an adult neighbor told me. Heinz said balls of blue lightning sometimes formed on telephone lines during thunderstorms and entered farmhouses through the telephone. Then the balls rolled on the floor.

Southern Minnesota is muggy from late June to early August, and muggy, summer nights breed thunderstorms. On such nights, when the night air is absolutely still, you can hear the corn growing. It is a faint sound – or rather, millions of faint sounds – as expanding corn leaves split their sheaths. Nights like this often produce ‘heat lightning’ or ‘St. Elmo’s fire,’ a burst of static electricity without thunder. On hazy nights, it was possible to see lightning flickering malevolently, far away, along the horizon. I dreaded the still, summer nights when my parents left me to baby-site my seven-year-old sister while they went to play bridge in town. What if that awful ball of fire shot out of the telephone and rolled around on the floor? I soon out grew out of my fear and grew into a fascination for Southern Minnesota weather, such as early spring thunder snows with lightning.

Our farm had 160 acres of arable land and another 120 acres of woodlands south of the meandering LeSueur River. The woods were magic – a place where a boy could have adventures, real and imagined. For most of the year, the river flowed slowly over a bed of silt and sand. It wasn’t deep, and as children we waded across it. After a little parental guidance, we swam in it. After the age of ten, I went to the woods whenever I could, with or without the Remington .22 rifle, just to slip the parental leash and the endless chores of pulling weeds.

A low, T-shaped ridge ran north for a quarter mile from our south line to a high cut-bank above the river. I loved to hunt fox squirrels there among the burr oaks with low crowns and spreading branches. In the spring, I watched migrating mallards and teal dabbling in the flooded meadow below the ridge. A few deer lurked in the flood plain forest of soft maple, black walnut, black cherry, and cottonwood trees. In the early spring break-up, the flooded river pushed up spectacular ice dams. Later, a cloud of warblers, orioles, catbirds, and thrushes filled the woods with songs. My Scout troop often camped in an opening below the ridge. In the fall, I hunted ducks and learned to snapshoot as they rose from the river’s surface. Before I got a driver’s license, the woods was a haven, a hangout to be safe but adventurous. My mom and dad loved the woods, and sometimes camped on the ridge during the songbird migrations, when the wild phlox carpeted the woods. We buried their ashes, but not their spirits, in an opening where they used to camp. Some things defy the grave.

At puberty, I began to think about serious, grown-up careers. One of Dad’s friends, an older man named Ed, had been a U.S. Forest Ranger and advised on us our woods. He was almost a member of the family, and often stayed for a meal and conversation. Ed knew more about hunting, fishing, and camping than anyone I knew and I eagerly learned from him. When dad was too busy with farming, Ed and I often went hunting, fishing, or camping. In his wool shirt, and puffing his pipe around a fire, he told wonderful tales of his life as a ranger. I idolized him for a few years because he had lived – or said he had – the kind of life that appeals to a 13-year-old boy.

Ed’s stories fed my dreams of a career as a game warden or forest ranger. It was manly, adventurous outdoor work. I would be a well-armed game warden looking for poachers, or a forest ranger battling a huge fire. Rangers and warden had to know a lot of natural science, but I already knew a lot about biology from simply living on the farm. By high school, however, I knew the old-fashioned woodsman’s life I idealized didn’t exist – if it had ever existed. Instead, I grew up to be a historian, camp and fish when I can, and wrote a book about rangers, forests, and the conservation of wilderness because some dreams are too good to let die.

‘Sloppy Joes’ are one of my favorite foods because the dish is tied to memories of a particular ritual on our farm. A ‘Sloppy Joe’ is a hamburger bun filled with a loose, hot filling of ground beef, onions, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings. My mother made them each fall for the opening day of pheasant season but we rarely had it otherwise. In truth, there was nothing intrinsically special about the taste of ‘Sloppy Joes’ except as an essential part of the day, along with several hunting dogs, our shot-guns, and canvas hunting coats.

Pheasant season opened each year at noon on the second Saturday of October. By then, Dad and I had posted the farm with ‘No Trespassing’ signs to keep out all but our hunting party. It was the one day in October when he didn’t pick corn, regardless of how ideal the weather. Our usual gang of hunters arrived about 11 a.m.: Mom’s cousin John, Ed the ranger, Al our dentist, Irv the feed mill manager and his son Buddy. We ate buffet style, and helped ourselves to buns, ‘Sloppy Joe’ filling, dill pickles, potato chips, coffee or pop, and Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. Well-fortified with lunch, we went out to hunt. Part of the ritual lay in the way we swept the fields, moving in almost military formation along the fencerows, through the weed patches, across corn stubble, and then skirting the river before hunting back toward our house for a second helping of coffee and cookies. I haven’t carried a shotgun or hunted pheasants in more than 40 years. Yet, the passage of time hasn’t dulled my delight in a plate of ‘Sloppy Joes.’ The goodness doesn’t come from the ingredients but from the memories.