Over the past ten years or so I have kept daily journals, and, in the course of those ten years, I have been on a quest to find the perfect pen. Part of my enjoyment of writing by hand is to feel the scratch of the pen over the tooth and texture of paper. Some pens scratch better, and some papers have better tooth. I have purchased a good deal of pens—gel, ballpoint, Sharpies, thick, thin, medium, heavy, light, round barreled.
I recently bought yet another set of pens in my never-ending search and discovered, as I sat down to see how well the scratching would go, that the ink was blue, not black. I sat back and studied the blue-inked pen and it occurred to me that I’d been using black-inked pens for, well, I’m not even sure for how long, but I think it’s been a very, very long time. As I twirled the blue-inked pen around in front of me, I had a distant memory of my sister-in-law dismissing blue-inked pens as unprofessional; only black ink makes an impression. She’s very sophisticated, with lovely clothes and custom-made make-up, all of which I am not and do not have, but her pronouncement must have made a subliminal impression on me because, until my present lapse, I have always made sure my pens are black inked and felt—subconsciously, at least—that blue ink was faintly inferior.
However, I compounded my error in buying a pack of pens, so sure was I of its perfection, and now I have ten blue-ink pens to work my way through—I’d better learn to like blue.
So I started scratching away with the pen and liked how it felt; I liked the weight in my hand, and how it adhered to the paper’s texture. Overall, it was scoring a seven or eight on a scale of one to ten—except for that substandard blue ink. Well, I had ten pens to go, so I would just have to get over it. But as I scratched away, watching the ink form my blue words across the page, it seemed to me that blue ink looked a bit old fashioned, perhaps not really unsophisticated, maybe just not . . . modern. Studying the page, I realized that I was always coming across bits and scraps and shards of paper, all with spidery blue script drifting across them—the faint dust of someone’s thoughts.
Whenever I go into a thrift store or an antiques store, I am summoned to the book section, like a moth to the flame. If I vanish from my husband’s sight for any length of time, he knows to head to the books, and I can be found sitting on the floor between the shelves with a small pile next to me and another in my lap. As I flip through these books there are usually little bits of paper slipped here and there into them; I am sometimes more interested in finding and reading the bits than I am of the actual books.
Tucked into random pages are scraps, the remnants of a to-do list, a note, or a shopping list. Most of the paper is gone, torn away with age or mishandling, leaving only a few bits with some faded blue ink on them. How those small shreds of someone’s life have not become lost when the vast majority of its former self has disappeared in time is truly beyond me. Ever so gently I pull them out, study them, tuck them back into their secret spot, and set the book aside to buy. I have a wonderfully old math book that is almost prickly with notes in the scattered scrawl of someone diligently studying and alternately making notes to themselves about which pages to go over again and what might be on upcoming tests. It’s one of my best finds.
My excuse for the thrift store searches is to find suitable books to use in my collages—but really if you look at my studio’s shelves, I’m not fooling anyone; most of them are quite intact. When I hunt around on these shelves for a book to recycle, to use either with a collage or as a collage base, I revisit my favorites—the math book, a 100-year-old cookbook laden with notes on stain removal, a lovely old engineering book with recipe ingredients—and carefully look at all those tiny bits of paper. I never cease to wonder at how they didn’t completely vanish. I leave all the bits where they originally were put. I suppose I like to acknowledge their tenacity.
My favorite, however, of all my favorite old books with bits and pieces is my grandfather’s cookbook. An unassuming and, to be honest, kind of boring looking book, it is a 1951 edition of The New Fanny Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. It has been left just exactly as it was when he last used it, probably sometime in 1982, a year before he died. It is bristly with scraps sticking out, odd pieces with notes, faded scratchings on old envelopes listing ingredients or recipe page numbers on them, and an assortment of recipes torn from magazines. The cookbook is well annotated with amount adjustments or temperatures he found preferable.
I rarely use this book as a cookbook—my grandfather was a chef and I am not, but it holds a prominent spot in my kitchen. Its drab green cover is frayed and the binding is going to give out soon. I open it as I would a book printed in 1751, and I treasure it fiercely. All those bits and scraps tell the back story of my family’s Christmas dinners, experimental Easter lunches, and some colossal Thanksgiving dinners. Sauces and soufflés, bisques, baked Alaska, goose, trifle. Sadly wishing for a pedestrian hot dog or a simple hamburger, I was shamelessly unimpressed by the artistic culinary feats he was busy tossing off in my parent’s kitchen. I remember being a more than a little unnerved by tongue, and the goose was alarmingly almost the same size as me.
And, yes, some of his notes to himself are written in blue pen—but most are in pencil, a decidedly more humble medium than blue ink.
I keep his cookbook, and the math book, and the engineering book just as their owners have left them, their accompanying scraps giving life once again to the authors who wielded those blue pens. I will make sure they are turned over to someone who loves bits and pieces as much as I do. I wonder if someday my journals will go the way of them, probably no longer intact, torn and frayed. Someone may come across them and carefully turn the yellow and cracked pages, all covered with my scratchings in black ink and blue ink—by then both will more than likely be thought of as old fashioned.