Sharpened pencils

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

As I sat at my friend’s dining room table waiting for her to get ready to go out, in front of me was a pilsner glass of pens and pencils. After staring them down for a while, I chose the one very sharp pencil with a big eraser.As if I touched by a fairy wand, I am at a familiar table, one I haven’t seen for at least 60 years. Sharpened pencils sit before me. I am in my grandparents’ house at my grandmother’s dining room table. I have just chosen a Number 2 and am reaching for a clean white sheet of paper.

Gramma sat for hours at the head of that table, paper and pencils handy. Behind her, the red Depression bowl in the china cabinet glinted above her dull gray hair like rubies in a crown. She was usually busy writing; crossing out, musing blankly into space, writing again: she was a poet.

Her worktable was covered with neat stacks of magazines and books, plus two stacks of papers – one covered with her illegible script, the other waiting blankly for the same fate. Directly in front of her was the chipped cut-glass celery holder with its arms akimbo and its three sturdy legs. It held a dozen precisely sharpened yellow, wooden tools of the trade.

The first-best part of being at Gramma’s was the tidy dining room table with pencils and paper for us, her three granddaughters, to use at will. I came to believe later in my life that their availability was the reason I became a writer.

The rest of the house was seldom dusted or even picked up. My mother called it “a holy mess,” my father told me his mother had always been like that. My sisters and I were allowed to play anyplace we felt like, including the closets and the roomers’ bedrooms upstairs. I’m not sure Gramma knew we played up there: the second-best part of staying at her house was that she paid so little attention to us. We had the run of the place and explored at will – we dressed up in stale-powder-scented gauzy dresses we’d never seen her wear, we ran our fingers over coins and cufflinks on the bureaus in the upstairs bedrooms.

I see my 8-year-old self working laboriously over my next poem at that table, then moving on to the front porch to read a book where I am hidden from the street by great flopping snowball bushes, then inside to a bedroom closet built over the stairwell to the basement; its angled back wall was a perfect slide.

The house was dusty, redolent of bacon grease and Grampa’s cigars. Dust motes floated along sun beams through seldom-if-ever-washed windows. Lace curtains hung limp and dingey. The quiet was interrupted only by the steady scribbling of Gramma lost in her work.
I realize that for her, Gramma’s house was a habit of being, a way of being – life with pencil; the musty, messy rooms were a neglected backdrop.

For me it was as known as my own house but with no boundaries that I was aware of. I knew I was ignored and at the same time encouraged in some way to learn stuff; weird in itself because nobody was ever telling me anything, including what to do. I didn’t think about it, exactly, I just liked to be there.

It must have been Gramma’s sharpened pencils in their chipped antique holder that signified so much – a whole life can depend upon a time and place in childhood.

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