Gimbling in the Wabe: Au Revoir, Ma Belle Écriture!

When I was in grade school, we learned cursive writing.  Everyone did.  The three R’s:  reading, cursive-handwriting“w”riting and ‘rithmatic.  But there was more to spur me on with my cursive studies.  My grandmother, a great lady of the arts, insisted that I work on my penmanship until my script was flowing and gracious, and I worked hard to please her.

My grandmother lived in far off Philadelphia – a long ways from rural Iowa – and we only made the overland drive to see her and Grandpa every few years.  But those visits were magical, transporting me and my sisters from a sheltered, simple lifestyle triangulated between home, church and school to a place of wonderment and glamorous style.   Grandma had once been a concert pianist, and a shiny black Steinway Grand held focus in her drawing room, a marvel to behold, to be granted permission to touch and to play upon.  Grandpa cultivated a riot of colorful flowers in his garden (I only remember him after he had retired) and their house, with its Oriental rugs and fine linen and plush chairs, while not overly large, was bright and beautiful.  And they had a lady who would come in and cook and clean for them!  I remember her name was Louise, and she was remote and amazing all at the same time.  We would eat off of matching china, and on special occasions Grandma would set out the fancy crystal stemware and the ancient silverware, heavy and solid and polished so I could see myself in the spoons and broad cutlery.  And if we girls were very good, we might be taken into the heart of the city itself, to see marvels such as the animated beings in the store windows of John Wannamaker’s amid the hustle and bustle and lights and magic of a true metropolis.

And I did make my grandmother proud; my penmanship was marvelous.  I learned not only how to do it right, but to make it so that it reflected the person I was.  Simple yet elegant, astute, graceful.  I would get compliments on it not only in school, but later as well, as I merged it with my printed script and made it unique.  My husband would remark that we should work on making it an established font, it was so cohesive and artful.  Cursive writing actually landed me my first “real” job, as I did not own a typewriter in those early post-college days, necessitating that I print and script my original resume.  This was back in the “dark ages” before voice mail or electronic messaging, and I was hired to work at the front desk of a large accounting firm because my resume showed that I could take legible messages for the partners and associates who relied on this short but important communication.  (I ended up working for this same firm for over 25 years, with my other knowledge and willing attitude taking me up the corporate ladder.)

But times change.  The work I matriculated into had need of crafting business communications but I no longer needed to script them, as typewriters then computers and word processing programs sped the dissemination of information.  My grandparents grew old and frail, and moved to an assisted living community closer to family in Iowa; my glimpses of their glamour faded with them.  Besides, I was living in the big city of Minneapolis now, and my own life held enough excitement to fill my days.  Eventually, even as my life experience grew by leaps and bounds, my writing was no longer a big part of it and was regulated to the notes tagged on to Christmas cards and very occasional personal correspondences.

My children never really mastered cursive writing.  (My husband’s handwriting had always been atrocious!)  My son, the oldest, did learn the classic script and when signing his name he would carefully and even meticulously work it out with even and compact spacing, but he would grumble while doing so – he saw no real need for art.  My daughter – well, she takes after her father, and never wrote more than in scrawls, even to the point of occasionally being marked down on tests because they were virtually unreadable.  I tried to instill in both of them a love of the look and feel of writing, but the lessons fell on deaf ears, and I had bigger battles to wage than a justification of beautiful penmanship.

Now I see that there is a movement to drop the learning of cursive writing in elementary schools altogether; some schools have already done so.  This makes me sad, but I do not rail against it.  Kids nowadays really only need to know how to type; this is the accepted form of communication in today’s world.  Printing is the only necessary (yet still fleeting) skill.

It makes me sad.  Cursive writing truly is becoming a lost art form, along with the loss of letter writing and other personal correspondences.  Even I have lost the physical ability to truly write beautifully on the page.  Lack of practice has made my own cursive writing, once a great joy, to be something laborious and cramped.  I have lost the flow and the ability to smoothly move across the page with pen in hand.  Even I default to printing now, on the rare occasion when I write something in the anachronistic and even quaint longhand.  My beautiful handwriting has become as much a memory as those road trips to Philadelphia.  The images of sights and wonders that used to mesmerize me in their rarity are now only a click away, displayed at a whim in the few seconds that exist between one moment and the next.

Yet I honestly believe that cursive writing will never truly disappear. I don’t think that this is merely sentimental nostalgia. It may no longer be a part and parcel of normal days, but it will wax and wane as a harbinger of all that which is considered precious and intensely personal.  I see it akin to culinary skill:  most of what we consume has become the quick, convenient and homogeneous experience of boxed meals and microwaves, of takeout and delivery.  But when we truly wish to entertain, or when we want to expose our families and our loved ones to something of value, we will make the time, and revert back to gathering ingredients at the core and the creating of meals that are wholesome and nutritious without the necessary evils of industrial packaging and preservatives, of additives and ingredients meant to make food look good and flatten the palate, but are full of hidden dangers and distractions.   And when we discover – or rediscover – the joy of cooking and the pleasure at setting a gracious table, complete with matching china and crystal and silver on the most special of occasions, then we will again carry a bit of that with us for the rest of our days.

So I will say au revoir to cursive writing, but not adieu.  A farewell for now, but not a final goodbye. It will not be gone forever.  It will re-emerge again, even in those who may have to work to master it for the first time, as we seek to reconnect in a very intimate way with loved ones and those we seek to truly touch.  And even though I myself may not be able to recapture that glory in my own hand, I will still rejoice when I see it, not as an old woman pining for what was but as one who can appreciate what it holds:  grace, beauty, clarity and enduring value, always.

~ Sharon Browning

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