I am old enough to have gone to school back when nice handwriting was a thing. And at age ten or so, mine was a very terrible thing to behold, as sloppy and messy and unreadable as that of any doctor. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t do it.
My stepfather decided after one too many tearful conversations between my parents, my teacher, and me, to do something about it, so he set me the task of copying out in cursive longhand a book. A page a day he said, and gave me one of his “special for work” big unlined notepads—a block of typing paper, I realize now, but it mattered back then that it was “special”. A page a day is a not too onerous amount although it seemed a Mt Everest of writing at the time, and he thought my problem was that I didn’t write anything of any length and never fell into the rhythm of it.
And so this was the book he picked off the bookshelf, after a good half hour of back and forth. Something I hadn’t read, something a little challenging, but still fun, he said.
Oh I hated every minute of that task. Hot summer afternoons were the worst torture, the last thing I wanted to do was sit inside for an hour and copy from those yellowing pages, the complicated language, the endlessly long sentences. But my stepfather was a hard man, and sit there I did. Every day, for nearly a year, sometimes copying a page three times over until it was judged done well enough.
But somewhere late in that year, I realized, I was looking forward to it each day. To returning to the world of Davey and Alan Breck, to find out what happened next. I don’t know to this day if it’s as good as I remember, because every time I pick it up I am once again that little girl sitting at the desk, so engrossed in the adventure I don’t even notice that I’m hard at work. I realized I loved this story to pieces.
And I remember the pride I felt when I finished copying out this book, and realized something else: My handwriting no longer sucked. At the local fair the next spring, along with the jams and huge tomatoes and dioramas and granddad’s prize Angus Bull, there on the wall was a little calligraphy display of small posters by the best students of each class, mine up there right along with the rest.
My stepfather and I did not get along. Not at all, not then, and not later. I left home when I was 15, after he raised his voice and his fists at me one time too many, and I picked up a chair and swung it at him, breaking his jaw. We sort of ended in a state of armed peace many years later, but I don’t think we were ever alone together in a room, or had a direct conversation ever again.
But two things he gave me, along with my only truly good memory of him: He gave me Kidnapped. And killer handwriting.