The Romance of Ink-Stained Thumbs

WHENEVER I begin a love letter, I remember a boy from school whom the girls called Pongo, probably because his love letters stank. I liked Pongo; he wore a custard-stained jacket, never seemed to comb his hair like Dylan Thomas, but tried his neatest hand with the girls. He was a good calligrapher, probably the best in the class, his face down near his ruler in utter absorption of getting a hundred for writing with an English nib. But either he didn't know the girls he wrote to, or something in the girl s' universe could not tolerate a lad so untidy in his dress. From Pongo I learned the lesson that my own letters could ``pong'' - smell - if I didn't put something else in them besides pretty letters.

I learned to write with Pongo, whose name was Richard Leahy, probably a great minor poet in England now. With ink-stains on both thumbs, I mastered pens, nibs, inkwell, blotting paper, and that most difficult art of all: using the backside of a ruler to draw an ink line that didn't bleed.

I think of Pongo and the girls on the way home from school hurling insults at him, making confetti of his love letters. But for some reason I return to these clumsy tools of our childhood, pen, paper, and India ink, when I find I must write to my Annabelle Lee (her love-letter name).

I write to tell her thanks for an athletic fall, for being able to see her in the silver light of morning snow, for her daily mercies on me, or just to tell her hello, I am here, that my life is a tapestry and without her I would be a bare rug. To do this I begin with the old utensils.

It's scary writing a good love letter. One slip of the pen and you might create a bleeding heart, forever in her love-letter box, when what you set out to do was to touch delicately on the secret way you both stand outside of the everyday world. A typewriter or a computer may hammer it out with too many skipped heartbeats.

Pongo, for all his clownish dress, was onto something. I feel I have to paint my letters first, with careful brushstrokes, to see who I am in these letters, to take it slow. For this, I'm glad I went to school in England and had the apprenticeship of an ink-stained thumb for two years. It was kind of like learning to plant tulips, not something you do every day, but part of an education that brings joy. To write a letter is something very hard for me to do right and too easily imitatively done. A nib an d ink make me watch it, and do careful planting.

So how do I go beyond what Pongo did? How do I avoid being too careful, but find out what my original feelings are?

Actually, being in love with the person helps. So does blotting the ink on every line. It helps to dry up some of the more purple phrases. But it mostly comes from practice. Practice at learning to talk long-distance to the opposite sex. Face it, no matter how many evenings one spends reading a play together, or routinely riding bikes to a glowing meadow, or calling her ``Gloria'' when her given name is Jackie - there are long-distance spaces that need adjusting and that's why the love-letter was invent ed. There's a secret space all lovers share that is ``wordless as a flight of birds'' but must be alluded to if you expect to be paid the wages of love. Too many words - or phony words - will only heighten the walls of the secret garden: I find I must find a way in, over the wall, through the iron-trellised gate, with no mortal key, even if I have to fly in on the scent of the sweetness within.

I got my practice at boarding school when I met Stephanie Lovejoy, who went to the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut. With four weekends and three formal dances per year together, she and I had to find a way ``to talk.'' We started off pretty badly and used all the clich'es: signing letters with clever things like ``Love and other indoor sports,'' or better ``con carinos'' or ``toute `a l'heure'' rifled from language textbooks. Then I worked my way to provocative phrases of my own like, ``Tonight ther e's a rally for the football team, I stood in the glow of the bonfire as the effigy of [the] Kent [School] burned, and thought of you....'' After two years of writing to Stephanie, I finally cooled out into significant phrases like ``Tonight it's snowing. I see a light blinking on a hill where two roads meet.''

I finally saw Stephanie two years later after missed meetings at Grand Central Station in New York, and there were no blinking lights on a hill. In fact, we had written ourselves out to a terrible shyness - and she went home early on an afternoon train. But I remember her for the great practice she gave me.

I know her name, Stephanie Lovejoy, helped. Right now I'm doing well with my ``Annabelle Lee.'' I remember Poe said about her, ``And she lived only to love and be loved by me.'' It does help if you think your correspondent likes you a little. Perhaps that was Pongo's problem. He never worried about whether they liked him.

No matter how I service my technique, the act of writing a love-letter takes courage. My love has four children - what if one of the kids got hold of my original stuff, ``How do I love thee - let me count the ways....''? Would I admit that I wrote it? Would I have to blame it on Elizabeth Barrett Browning? I've eased up on originality since my school days, and even if I have to plagarize a little, I'd rather she had it from my hand in India ink than none at all.

I do get a chance to work in things like ``seeing you with the silver light off snow'' or ``the pleasure I get by the clanging of the stainless bucket as you go out to feed the goats you love.'' But I never really know if it's Pongo or not, til I see her smile with gratitude. Or is it mercy?

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