My grandfather’s oldest brother was quite the fastidious businessman in his day. I inherited his desk, books, and office supplies, and I’ve found there’s so much to discover about people from the objects that filled their lives.
For example, my great-uncle was a Master Mason and a Shriner, an avid hunter, gardener and golfer, and he was a careful record-keeper. He believed in refilling complimentary ballpoint pens rather than simply tossing them out, keeping matchbooks from places he visited, and holding on to extra nails, screws, hooks, and tacks “just in case.”
When he purchased something, he made sure it was going to last. This new old desk I have received is a testament to his insistence upon quality. A dark, heavy hardwood, its fixtures are real brass. Most of them are still shiny, despite decades of use. He topped the desk with a larger piece of lacquered wood, and he attached felt pads to the topper’s underside to assure that the original desk would remain unscratched.
The lamp that accompanies the desk was made sometime, I would venture to say, in the 1960s. It is a heavy brown metal drafting lamp with fluorescent bulbs, and it can be pivoted and adjusted for different perspectives on projects. Turning the lamp on is like taking a trip back in time, as the satisfying click of the red “on” button bespeaks another era — one that was marked by products made for near-permanence.
Even the electric pencil sharpener that came with these items is remarkable. I know the brand — it is one that has frequented my classroom for many years. The difference is, this one was made nearly 50 years ago, and its motor has yet to burn out. Yes, the unit is heavier and bulkier than today’s model, but the machinery that comprises it has yet to fail. I go through electric pencil sharpeners in my classroom at an alarming rate. I’m lucky if a modern sharpener made by this same company lasts a full school year. And yet, here is this dinosaur, still grinding down wood and graphite with precision and speed. Granted, this model hasn’t undergone the abuses and rigors of a secondary classroom, but nonetheless, its continued functionality is commendable.
I bring up these examples not as a maudlin longing for simpler times, but instead, to launch into another point: what we produce as writers can be quick and slick like dollar-a-pack stick pens, or we can endeavor to create something a bit more like the aforementioned desk, lamp, and pencil sharpener — something that endures. One of my goals as a poet has always been to create work that will be read in classrooms and checked out from libraries 100 years from now. Some would say that such an ambition is unrealistic and naive. I prefer to think that considering legacy when writing is much like investing in quality items of a more tangible nature. It ensures that when the people we care about look back over our lives, they can safely say we, too, insisted on quality.
Among the books I’ve received from this great uncle are several Bibles and dictionaries. All of them have been used with frequency, but also with a sort of care that shows reverence and admiration. My hope is, in using and appreciating these everyday items, I might somehow pass on that great tradition of surrounding oneself with matter that matters. May our writing be done in such a way that, when others hold it like a leather-bound inheritance, they treasure it equally every time.