“The Palmer Method: Penmanship and the Tenor of Our Time”

Winner of the McGinnis Prize for Best Nonfiction, Southwest Review, Fall 2007


From Canada, in cursive to die for, mother narrated for me the turbulent weather blowing in from across the twenty-five mile wide lake in front of our house. She told me about grey herons and screech owls and flying squirrels and fire flies that coasted right by her window. So many delicious words, so many exquisitely formed letters. I read, in her steady, always fully legible script, about the long awaited arrival of each summer’s crops of Silver Queen sweet corn and Big Boy tomatoes; about the tradesmen (her charmingly antique term) we had known for decades who stopped by, unscheduled, to fix whatever needed fixing and never gave her a bill. There’s no denying that a certain yearning abides in my heart for one more letter from her, postmarked Lowbanks, Ontario, Canada, because the quality of her handwriting, regardless of the banality of the news she passed on, confirmed in an instant that she still had her wits about her, that the effort required to add a touch of graciousness to life still seemed worth making.

I like to believe that still, somewhere, in that more gracious world, the ascenders rise in a handsome stretch skywards, the descenders dangle playfully like children’s legs off a dock on a warm summer’s day, the roundness of “a’s” and of “q’s” and the sensuous curves of “s’s” and “r’s” and the arresting angularity of “z’s” – that all these scratches on the page still yield something beautiful, personal, and meaningful when strung together with patience and care. The clock moved glacially in Mrs. Goldfus’s classroom in 1953, but not one of us was restive to leave our seats during the long penmanship exercises. Mastering the skill of writing in cursive with a straight pen was tantamount to learning to ride your bicycle with no hands – something every cool kid was determined to do.

Cursive power! Straight pen power! Viva Mrs. Goldfus! Viva the Palmer Method of Penmanship!