People and Pens
My father-in-law died this week. He was in his 99th year. I wrote the draft of this blog with his pen, a vintage Parker 51 made in 1946.
As you can see from the photograph, I own lots of pens, all fountain pens and dip pens. Each one of them works. The criterion for adding a pen to my collection is that I must be able to write with it.
Why would one need more than one or two fountain pens? The answer, for me, lies in the fact that fountain pens and people have much in common.
Fountain pens are tipped with a nib, a sometimes beautiful and always fascinating bit of engineering that draws air into the pen to allow ink to flow from the pen. Fountain pens need to breathe air to function.
Some nibs are gold; some are steel, some are alloys of precious metals. Some are broad-tipped; some are medium, and some are fine. Some are flexible and can lay down script in various widths with a flourish. Some are firm and some absolutely rigid. Each has its own use, its own way of producing words on a page. In other words, fountain pens have personalities.
Fountain pens are indeed much like people. They come in many different shapes and colors and sizes. Each pen is unique. Fountain pens of the same make and model may even write slightly differently because of small differences in the nibs.
For most who use them, a fountain pen is not just another pen in a drawer full of ballpoints and pencils bought in bulk from an office supply store, mixed in with pens advertising a bank or a car dealer.
Fountain pens are meant to last. When they run out of ink you don't discard them, you refill them. Because the pen is meant to last, it needs care.
The whole concept behind writing with a fountain pen is pretty much the opposite of writing with a pencil or ballpoint pen. You don't apply pressure to write with most fountain pens. To do so produces bad results and will probably damage the pen. You simply guide the pen as it glides over a layer of ink between it and the paper. Excess stress and pressure are harmful. You can't force a fountain pen and expect it to respond well.
The right relationships among pen, ink, paper and hand are essential. It can be a challenge at first, but once you seek out and understand a particular pen, it is a joy to write with.
If neglected, a fountain pen dries out and stops working. It must be treated well and maintained constantly. If a pen dries out, it takes some effort to restore it. Better to treat it well in the first place.
Since fountain pens are meant to be kept, even treasured, they can develop a legacy. In addition to my late father-in-law’s pen, I also own pens that belonged to my mother-in-law, my wife's grandmother, and my wife’s grandfather. I also own pens that are very old but of unknown provenance.
As I write with one of these I sometimes wonder: What has it “seen?”
Who bought it? Was it given as a gift? Was it used to write important, life-changing signatures or correspondence? Was it used lovingly to write notes and letters to family and friends? Was it used begrudgingly to write a check to pay a bill?
The possibilities are endless. It's fascinating to me to picture other hands holding the same pen that I hold in mine. Fountain pens, like people, are the stuff that memories are made of, both good and bad.
Some fountain pens are old and distinguished; others are bold and brash. Some draw attention to themselves. Some simply do their jobs without a fuss. Some are easy to get along with; others need more care and patience.
I have several humble school pens. I recall as a little boy in Catholic school being required once a week to surrender a quarter to the eighth grader at the school store (wobbly card table in the hall) to buy a box of fresh cartridges. I look at these pens and wonder about the students who used them, noting that the pens often have bite marks or chewed ends.
Some of my pens are very hardy. They can withstand being dropped or jammed into a pocket or briefcase. Nothing seems to bother them. Any ink and any paper will satisfy them.
Others are very finicky or fragile and won't work on anything but their own terms. Some prefer certain inks and rebel at others. Some write well on fine paper but create a mess on common copy paper.
Back to the original question: Why own more than one fountain pen?
One might ask, why have only one friend or only one kind of friend? Why mix with only certain people and miss out on the richness of different people?
Yes, fountain pens and people have a lot in common. If I re-read this blog post and substitute people for fountain pens, it all makes sense. It is a challenge for me sometimes to care for people as well as I care for my pens.
Like my fountain pens, all people are unique, have a story to tell, and are worth my time and effort to understand them, to find in them the peace of a mutual relationship and perhaps the joy of a friendship.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
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50 years of photographs and 35 years of keeping a commonplace book.
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