prose My father was not a tall or handsome man but he had beautiful hands. I can still remember his hands—jotting down notes in flawless cursive or arranging flowers in the window—far better even than I can call up the image of his face. A man of many maxims, one of his favorites was: “Where your mind ends, your hands begin.” He had a deep love and respect for fine craftsmanship, art, and technical skill that I always assumed blossomed during his time in art school. My father’s stories rarely went farther back than his first day at The Westbridge Art Academy, but he did say once or twice that he had a normal, boring childhood, complete with the relatively uneventful move during his adolescence to the United States from the “Fatherland.” He also mentioned on more than one occasion (not without a touch of pride) that he had, at an early age, a clear predisposition for drawing. He entered Westbridge with an impressive portfolio and a desire to learn painting, sculpture, and ceramics from the Greats, but within a semester and a half he gave up these lofty dreams in pursuit of his new passion: handwriting. Westbridge was a melting pot of different scripts and styles from around the world; in class, while all the students were watching the professor demonstrate proper perspective drawing, my father would be too engrossed in the blocky As and Rs of his neighbor’s notes to pay attention. Rather than drop out or fail his courses, my father, ever the pragmatist, made a deal with his professors. “I would show them my skill at drawing,” he said to me over many dinners, gesturing with his crust of bread. “I showed them my fruits and my figures and my landscapes. I said, ‘Is this the work of a lazy man? Is this the work of someone who should not be in art school? No. I will take your courses, but I want to use them to further my passion, my love of handwriting, of styles and letters.’ And so I made them all a deal.” If a teacher assigned a pastel still life for a course, my father would hand in an essay on
the nature of the pastel still life in one hundred different handwritings. “It wasn’t enough,” he would say, poking my chest, “for the scripts to be good. The essays had to be good, too. I had to move them. And so I learned and I got better and I grew.” After spending his senior year learning every Westbridge student’s unique script by rote and pouring over library books to sharpen his English, my father produced a book-length thesis on the history and cultural impact of modern American handwriting techniques and pedagogies, rotating each sentence in a different student’s style. I remember many dinner conversations in which my father would dare us to pick a word, any word, and have us gather around as he copied the word over and over in each student’s script, in alphabetical order, decades later. He would end up graduating salutatorian of his class, behind a girl who made what my father begrudgingly admitted was a “not-terrible sculpture of the Virgin Mother.” My father chose the path blazed by so many immigrants before him—entrepreneurship. “de Grâce Suicide Notes” first opened its doors in 1964, the same year my father and mother met in a bank teller’s line and shortly thereafter married. By the time I started forming memories, “de Grâce Suicide Notes” was a profitable little store (with upstairs apartment) resting on an intersection in Manhattan’s Garment District. My father was working six days a week and bringing in just enough money to make rent, keep his family fed and clothed, and go out to have the occasional meal of Peking duck and rice with my grandparents. If you took any heed in my mother’s current Saturday afternoon ramblings, her mouth propelling little bits of spinach salad onto your shirt and face, you would have a very dark picture of my father’s mother. “Dull, selfish, completely unlike your father. I’m still not sure he wasn’t switched at birth.” But if nothing else, I remember my grandmother as a very sharp woman. Wise, with quick, intelligent eyes. And although she shared my father’s serious-
ness, I remember many short yet meaningful warm glances, touches on the back of the neck, squeezes of the hand, secret pieces of Turkish Delight. My memories of my grandmother are strongest in a short window of time between my grandfather’s death and her own, a span of four years. I don’t remember much of my grandfather or his death, but I do recall meeting Mr. Fazio for the first time very soon after my grandfather’s funeral. The home of our store and apartment was originally called “34th and Highland,” once a perfectly acceptable name for the intersection. In the early 70s, however, it began to be referred to by locals as “Suicide Corner.” The Corner did not necessarily provoke any unusual spike in suicides by the neighborhood’s residents (though my own observations are hardly a substitute for any statistical proof), but it did house the city’s only two professional suicide note shops—the aforementioned “de Grâce Suicide Notes,” run by my father, and “Fazio’s Textual Remembrance,” run by the thick-lipped Bertrand Fazio—directly across the street from one another. “It’s bad luck,” some older kids told me once, before they found out that I was a de Grâce, “to walk in between the shops on a Sunday. That’s the Lord’s day.” I no doubt nodded politely and feigned awe. “No joke, kid; it’s like breaking six mirrors at the same time!” I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand Mr. Fazio’s reasoning in opening a suicide note shop forty feet from his only competitor, unless he truly did thrive off my father’s anguish, as my mother suggested nightly. “Fat-lips” Fazio (children can be so cruel) opened his “Textual Remembrance” within days of purchasing the vacant space and immediately advertised in the papers as charging less than my father for “double the quality!” My father was livid. I know now that he was likely also terrified, but at the time all I saw was the anger and fierce determination. He knew he was the superior handwriting artist and note-drafter. He dropped all extraneous distractions—relaxation, rumination,
issue15 / 9
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