On the surface it was just a picture of a Vancouver School Board pen, circa 1969. But it was much, much more than that. It was the coveted stylo won for best penmanship in my grade three class. Eight years old and hopelessly in love with my desk partner, Eric Rose, I hungered for the yet to be won prize.
Back straight, wrist held at just the right angle… I practiced daily at home and school to get those rounded curves in line with the strong, forceful backbones of what was known as the MacLean Method. An elegant mixture of feminine and masculine each letter had its own identity … not just by virtue of its name but due to a swirl here, an elongated tail there. The small p, for example, extended its spine high above its ovular face while the small r swept up the left side, looped imperceptibly and then, with a short, gentle slope to the right, completed its journey by dramatically sweeping down with a slight inward curve to welcome the next letter. And all letters, even some of the capitals, began and ended with a tail, one to introduce and the other to conclude but always ready to link, to connect, to make words come alive.
The MacLean Method was created by HB MacLean, a Maritimer by birth who came to BC in 1909. Heading up an education commission he took an oft heard complaint of teachers— the poor handwriting of students—to heart. Within a few years his writing text books were de rigueur in BC and his cursive style one of the newer commodities to travel the country.
My mother was a pupil at Vancouver’s St. Pat’s Catholic School in the 1930s. She was still writing in perfect form fifty years later. Recently I watched an older First Nation’s man sign his name … I could have sworn my mother was directing his hand. My friend, the one who sent the image of the pen over FB, said when reviewing old letters sent to her mom by friends it looked like her mom was writing letters to herself. The method was nothing if not persuasive.
Still, my mom’s version of this venerable technique was unique and flagrantly hers. Four kids, ailing parents and a problem with the bottle may have dampened her creative impulses elsewhere but her writing was something to behold. It was beautiful—a tribute to the concept that form provides the structure to the imaginative process. Her version nudged the slant of the letters a bit more to the right, added some swirls and a few extra waves. There was no heart dotting is or overly rounded letters, no, her cursive brought to mind the art deco period with bold moves and elaborate ornamentations.
I practiced the MacLean Method in my mom’s old scribbler with countless lines of As, Bs and Cs. I never fully understood why the capital Q looked like the number 2 but it wasn’t important. What was important was the prestige. It wasn’t just the prize for best penmanship, that oh-so-sleek feminine pen with its long slender neck; no, in retrospect, I think it was my mom’s pride with which I yearned.
I eventually did receive the honour of being the first of my class to write in ink. I don’t remember that moment as much as I do the process but, yes, I did bring home the prize. Eric, my unrequited love, moved away in Grade four and my mom, well, as already said, continued to write well and I continued to imitate her motions. But it was near impossible—her script was so inherently hers, I could never quite touch on the vital energy that nurtured it.
My mom died in the late 70s. I went through a long period of anger towards her after she passed. There are a myriad of reasons for this, some of them even valid, but I wonder if at the core, it was because she left before she could see the woman I became. I told myself for years I didn’t want to be anything like her and purposely walked paths she never did. Of course it never quite works out that way— I became a bit too dependent on wine in my twenties, was prone to bursts of rage and developed the same sleeping habits—but I fooled myself for years that I had left her behind. Even when I stopped trying to match her penmanship I still found myself drawing the poinsettias that she had so carelessly doodled on any scrap of paper.
My mom was a powerful force. I imagine when I brought home the pen that day she expressed her pride and I glowed for awhile. I just don’t remember. What I do know, however, is that she helped shaped me into who I am today. Back in those innocent years of primary school she praised my stories and told me I was a good artist. She didn’t stop me when I rambled on too long and watched, with admirable patience, my self-choreographed dance routines. And while my cursive abilities have long dropped by the wayside of award-winning ranks, today I consider myself a creative and artistic woman … just as she implied so many years ago.
Perhaps then, I owe more to the MacLean Method than just respect as a style mentor. It provided, in some small part, the structure for both my mom and I to survive the chaos that followed those early years. For her it brought healthy expression to an imagination held hostage and for me, hope—hope for the future and a burgeoning trust in the process.
In revisiting those elegant letters today with their co-joining links and infinite bonds, I connect with memories both good and bad. Mom and I, two women who lost their way, are coming home.