Lettering and the Art of Living
By Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Sylvia donned her tortoiseshell reading glasses and placed the envelope on the kitchen table covered by a white cloth with a strawberry border. She’d only laid the tablecloth down last night and was pleased that it had very few stains, although she’d had it for a very long time. It had been bequeathed to her by her mother, may she rest in peace.
Sylvia intended to open the envelope with the letter-opener that she’d received from her friend Bernice. A letter-opener was different from a paper knife, Bernice had declared when presenting the gift years ago on the occasion of Sylvia’s birthday, shortly after they’d first met. Bernice ought to have known since her father was a stationer by profession and had taught Bernice all there was to know about fine paper. This letter-opener had a cedar handle carved with a grapes-and-vines pattern. Sylvia had wondered if it came from the Holy Land, but she never asked Bernice. If Bernice had told her, that would have been different.
Sylvia didn’t open her regular daily mail with the letter-opener given to her by Bernice. Envelopes containing bills, promotional flyers, and sweepstakes won were just torn open. Only special handwritten letters from family or friends were carefully opened with the letter-opener gifted by Bernice. If someone took the time to write Sylvia by hand, then she would take the time to open the envelope properly. That was just something Sylvia believed strongly in.
Over the years, Sylvia had mostly received letters from her mother. The letters were filled with the news from back home: the births, graduations, bar mitzvahs, and deaths, of course. But sometimes her mother sent her a new casserole or lasagna recipe she’d tried out with the “girls” in her mah-jong club. Or some new lemon squares. Or even a fresh salad with nuts, if one of the girls was dieting, which was quite often the case.
Her mother first wrote to Sylvia after she’d left for secretarial school. Even though Sylvia mastered touch-typing very quickly, her mother always insisted that she write to her by hand. “Always work on your penmanship,” her mother had instilled in Sylvia from an early age and repeated over and over. Her mother’s own handwriting, with its long yet rounded lettering, was a source of pride. Sylvia knew early on that her handwriting couldn’t approach her mother’s in overall elegance and would never win prizes the way her mother’s had, but it was still a clear, legible hand. Nothing to be ashamed of, that’s for sure. And Sylvia never was.
The envelope in today’s mail, written in a spiky script, was addressed to Miss Sylvia Hirschfein. She felt a start of surprise since it had been quite a while since she’d received a handwritten piece of mail. She could tell at once that it was a letter and not a card by the weight of the envelope. Sylvia still occasionally received New Year’s and “Season’s Greetings” cards from the children and grandchildren of co-workers from the front office of the ladies’ hosiery firm where she’d worked for decades as a secretary. Of course, the co-workers themselves had long since passed away. Their children now had grown children of their own. And none of them used the written-out “Miss” address. It was always “Sylvia Hirschfein” or “Ms. Sylvia Hirschfein,” or occasionally, the erroneous “Mrs. Sylvia Hirschfein.” Sylvia had always taken pride in her work as a secretary—in her speedy, error-free typing, her note-taking, her ability to keep the office running smoothly, her overall professionalism. When, towards the end of her career, her boss offered to change her title to “Administrative Assistant,” Sylvia insisted on remaining a “secretary.” That was what she had been and would continue to be. In her retirement, she told people that she was a secretary by profession.
Sylvia relished receiving greeting cards and unfailingly responded with a card of her own. She never purchased cards in packets; she didn’t want to send the same card to different people. Even if the sentiment were the same and even if she knew the recipients wouldn’t communicate with each other about which card she had sent to them, Sylvia wanted each card to be different. But then the stationery store a few blocks over closed down. And then Sylvia’s arthritis and varicose veins made it hard for her to take the bus to the next neighborhood to buy other cards. And then a few years later, the post office closed. And so Sylvia couldn’t even get stamps to write a note on lined paper from the school notebooks she’d saved. Consolidation was the word used at the time of the post office’s closing.
Sylvia felt terrible not being able to return the cards, especially given the longevity of the tradition. She tried to find the numbers of the card senders in the telephone books so she could at least call them, but the numbers were unlisted. Sylvia had heard about the computers and the Internet, of course, but she didn’t know how to get started with all of that. She just hoped the card senders, the children of her co-workers in the front office of the ladies’ hosiery firm, could somehow sense her good wishes.
In the fine cut of the paper of the envelope now before her, Sylvia could see Bernice’s tacit approval. Bernice always insisted that you had to feel the paper itself with your own (ungloved) hands before buying it. They’d met in the stationery store a block from the secretarial school where both were enrolled, only three months after their courses had begun. She and Bernice laughed that they’d met off-campus instead of in class or in the cafeteria even. Bernice’s first words to Sylvia at the stationery store were: “Not a good choice. That paper’s going to turn brown and crumble in no time.”
Sylvia whirled around to meet the speaker of those words. And there was Bernice, smiling broadly, lips a bright strawberry, brown hair perfectly bobbed, and wearing a fitted forest green dress suit. Sylvia smiled in return; she couldn’t help herself. Bernice immediately linked her arm in Sylvia’s and led her to the paper stock that she thought Sylvia should purchase. It was creamy and thick enough so that you couldn’t see through it even when it was held up to the light. Bernice demonstrated for Sylvia so she could see for herself.
After they left the stationery store, Bernice invited Sylvia for a milkshake at the soda fountain down the street. Bernice explained that sometimes you just had to splurge a little; it was good for the soul. Sylvia just took all of this in, hardly knowing what to say. Sitting in the drugstore booth, staring at the vanilla froth around the strawberry painted lips moving ever so rapidly, Sylvia felt out of breath. Breathless with Bernice.
In turning the letter over, Sylvia saw that there was no return address. Bernice contended that there were always several possibilities when it came to letters without return addresses. The sender could be lazy, a liar/scam artist, a secret admirer, or simply aiming for an air of mystery. Senders of the first sort could usually be ruled out by the quality of the envelope and penmanship; a lazy person just wouldn’t go to all that trouble to create a good first impression. Senders of the last three sorts always had to be looked out for, though. Liar/scam artists had to be avoided. Admiration of the secret sort never did anyone any good, really. Bernice liked to be admired openly, freely. And while a sense of mystery could heighten the pleasure, it could also create a false sense of expectation. Bernice always preferred to include her return address—on the flap of the envelope, of course, and not in the top left hand corner of the envelope front.
And Bernice certainly did know a great deal about admiration openly offered. After they agreed to share an apartment (since it would be both prudent and fun) after graduation, Sylvia discovered the extent of the admiration of Bernice. If she’d thought beforehand she could warrant a larger, or at least more focused, share of Bernice’s attention as her roommate, Sylvia discovered she was mistaken. It wasn’t long before the extent, the very breadth and intensity of the sunlight that was Bernice, became clear. Bouquets of the most extravagant kind were always in abundance in their apartment. Roses of every shade and hue in the living room; in the dining room, calla lilies, carnations, hydrangeas, and others. Once, a bouquet of fuchsia orchids on the vestibule table stopped Sylvia in her tracks when she first came home. Although her own name was so much more romantic than Bernice’s, it was Bernice who had commandeered all the romance in the household, seemingly in the whole town. This irony was never lost on Sylvia, especially during that initial sighting of the fuchsia orchids on the vestibule table.
Boxes of chocolates arrived too—truffles, pralines, nougats, and bon bons of every sort—but Bernice never ate them. She said they were terrible for her figure, but she never discouraged the admirers from giving them to her. For that matter, they didn’t do wonders for Sylvia’s figure, which while it had never been the hourglass one of Bernice, had at least been sturdy and trim. But with the chocolates, that figure began to slacken perceptibly. Sylvia had come across the word blowsy once and knew she had to be careful or she could quickly land in the realm of that word. Still, she couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t refrain from Bernice’s romantic discards. They couldn’t really be called “leftovers” since Bernice never opened the boxes of chocolates at all. Sylvia saw the indignity of it, and still she couldn’t help herself. Even when she was nauseous with their sweetness, even when she felt as if the insides of her belly were smeared with chocolate and her soul sprinkled with pralines. Better Bernice’s discards than nothing at all.
To Sylvia, worse than the chocolates were the stories Bernice regaled her with on the evenings following her dates. There was the man who worked for a different company but in the same office building, a copy editor of some sort. And the one with whom she was set up by a co-worker of hers, a vacuum cleaner salesman. And the music teacher who really doted on her, and always came to the front door and insisted on saying “Good evening” to Sylvia. Bernice didn’t share very many stories about the music teacher the next day. And there were so many others, of course. None of them came into sharp focus now (or possibly even then) for Sylvia. But she always listened to the stories, never begged off.
Bernice basked in the adoration of men, however fleeting it always turned out to be. There was always a mother who was not pleased, parents who thought their son could “do better,” a returning girlfriend who seemed to be more stable, more suitable “wife material,” as something was off, or not quite right. Even the music teacher, with his solicitous gaze and impeccable manners, pulled away, although sometimes Sylvia wondered if it had been Bernice, in fact, who had tired of him.
Fingering again the paper of the envelope before her, Sylvia heard noises in the apartment above hers. There were obscenities shouted, a thud to the floor, then whimpering and sobbing. None of this was unusual anymore. Sylvia didn’t know what to do. She had never become accustomed to it exactly, but her options were limited, non-existent really. Once she’d knocked on that apartment door. The burly man glared down at her for a minute and slammed the door in her face. The police wouldn’t come for a domestic dispute, if it could even be called that, since it occurred so regularly that it was almost their modus operandi, their preferred means of communication. In fact, the police hardly ever came into this neighborhood at all. The building and this neighborhood had come down so far over the years, she wondered if they would ever come back. If she would still be alive if ever they did come back.
There was one man, one of Bernice’s admirers, who was especially unworthy of her. Charlie. Sylvia remembered his name, of course. Bernice was with him longer than the others, although just how long Sylvia would never know, as it turned out. Charlie never came to the door, and Bernice never introduced him to Sylvia. He wasn’t that good-looking from what Sylvia could tell. She could see that his mouth was always set in a scowl, that his suits, even if of fine cut, were always rumpled and could barely contain his body, which wasn’t exactly muscular or fat. But kind of both. He was strong, that’s for sure. Sylvia wasn’t eager to get on his bad side. She could see all that from behind the lace curtains at the front window her mother had sewn for her when the young graduates had first moved into the apartment, after she had given her mother the windows’ dimensions.
Sylvia removed her reading glasses from her nose and left them to rest on their chain against her chest. She walked away from the envelope to the window to look out on the courtyard below. The superintendent had once taken great care to maintain it. There had been flowerbeds and an outdoor glider around the pruned oak tree in the center. The flowerbeds and the glider were all gone now. Trash—junk food bags and wrappers, promotional brochures, and the like—drifted through the yard. Only the tree remained, still sturdy despite not having been pruned in years. Sylvia liked to gaze upon it, gaining inspiration from its perseverance, and marking the seasons’ change by the colors of its leaves.
When Bernice came home that night—Sylvia still thought of it as “that night”—the weather had been similar to today’s, with a similar crispness of air. Sylvia was reading in her room, having eaten a light barley soup for dinner. She heard Bernice enter the apartment slowly, fumblingly. This was quite unlike Bernice’s characteristically brisk entrance: a quick close of the door, a pouring of the keys into the bowl on the vestibule table once graced by fuchsia orchids.
When Sylvia emerged from her bedroom into the corridor, she gasped in shock. Bernice’s left eye was black and blue, and many other shades; her face was all swollen. Sylvia accompanied her to the bathroom and helped minister first-aid as best she could. There really wasn’t much in the medicine cabinet that would help here—some iodine, some aloe. Sylvia brought some raw meat from the fridge and some ice from the freezer. She sat on the floor while Bernice sat on the toilet seat with its lid down.
Even having spied on Charlie from behind the living room curtains all these times, Bernice was still taken aback by the extent of the beating. Her Bernice, her beautiful Bernice, with the wide smile framed by strawberry-colored lips, and the bobbed curls. Sylvia was overcome, not by the sense of the world’s injustice, for she had long ago accommodated herself to, if not accepted, that injustice. Sometimes she felt that it was etched into the pores of her skin, into every fiber of her being. Rather, she was overcome by a longing to do more, to be able to protect Bernice. This sense of impotence caused her to do something she’d never done, something in retrospect, of course, she should never have done. She leaned into Bernice’s stockinged calves, put her arms around them, and stated:
“Bernice, you have to leave Charlie.”
Bernice stood up, meat and ice cubes against her face, and walked out of the bathroom and Sylvia’s (waking) life forever. Remaining on the bathroom floor, Sylvia heard Bernice packing all of her suitcases, without deliberation or care. Eventually she arose from the bathroom floor, returned to her bedroom, and fell into sleep. She thought she heard the front door close at some point, but couldn’t be sure, didn’t want to know. The next morning, Sylvia found the check for this month’s and next month’s rent paid in full. Even in her abandonment, Bernice’s generosity moved Sylvia.
The envelope called Sylvia back to the present day, but she wasn’t quite ready to open it. She remembered that she didn’t only receive cards from the children of her co-workers. Sylvia also received invitations to the bar mitzvahs and weddings of the children of her distant cousin Rochelle, whose name had been changed to Rahel when her family became ultra-Orthodox. Some of the envelopes were addressed by hand, but lately they were in a fancy pseudo-calligraphy executed by a computer made to look handwritten. This was a subtlety that Bernice taught Sylvia all those years ago, although back then the practice of mechanized writing on the envelope was far less common than today. Bernice once said that the term lettering was needed to describe all aspects of the letter: the letters of the words, the quality of the paper of the letter, the style of the letter, and the envelope, including what was written on it. All of that could not be encompassed in the term letter-writing.
The invitations on card stock that came from Rahel were mailed from Israel. They were usually cream-colored, sometimes eggshell or pale gray. The first letters of the bar mitzvah boy’s name would be shaped into a set of tefillin/phylacteries on the front of the invitation. The letters of the bride and groom would be similarly woven into an artful design. Sylvia had not advanced very far with her Hebrew studies, but she could still decipher the letters. Her mother, raising her alone and with no financial assistance, had insisted on that. She took Sylvia to the nearby synagogue which had a Sunday school and somehow managed to get her enrolled. Sylvia watched this take place while standing in the hallway of the synagogue’s school and furtively looking through the door of the classroom window. Her mother just didn’t take no for an answer, as they say.
After her marriage, Rahel and her husband emigrated to Israel. Ever since she received that letter opener from Bernice (which may or may not have come from Israel), Sylvia had always wanted to go there. Israel was a vision that shimmered before her—a land of oranges, sun, and ravishing women in army fatigues—but nevertheless a place palpable, a cosmic space larger than her mother and herself and her secretarial job at the ladies’ hosiery firm. Whenever she visited her mother, Sylvia always put away money in the pale blue box for the Jewish National Fund that her mother kept near the toaster. But if she wondered if she’d live to see the building and the neighborhood “come up,” Sylvia also knew she’d never now reach the land of Israel.
Before Rahel and her husband emigrated, long before Sylvia received those invitations, she and her mother attended Rahel and her husband’s wedding. It was a lovely affair, with the men and women seated separately. Sylvia enjoyed watching the women dance—the fellowship and grace of it without masculine intervention—even if neither she nor her mother participated. Both were dressed modestly, in charcoal and black dresses respectively, but Sylvia didn’t know the dance steps, which looked to be quite elaborate, and she didn’t want to attract any undue attention. Sylvia also felt especially ungainly in a dress, which she hadn’t worn in years. But even if she could’ve mastered the steps, she didn’t want to leave her mother at the table without a conversation partner. The fact that they weren’t Orthodox would be apparent to all attendees by telltale signs: skin visible at the neck, her mother’s white, unwigged hair, something indefinable that set them both apart. Yet if no one besides Rahel (who was busy being the bride!) spoke to them, no one seemed to mind their attendance, either.
Sylvia returned from her reverie and decided it was time to cut the envelope with the letter opener from Bernice. She cut it carefully, slowly, aware that her hands were trembling more than they usually did. Funny how her mother never took to Bernice, felt that she wasn’t a good influence on her Sylvia. The one time they’d met had not gone well. Bernice’s charm had fallen very flat and fizzled away. Her mother quickly gathered her things and left for the bus station. Her mother’s assessment of her friend—which came to Sylvia in her letter the following weekend—was unnecessary. Both Sylvia and Bernice knew how she felt. Sylvia was tempted to show her mother’s letter to Bernice. She thought Bernice might chuckle; she wanted to hear Bernice’s particularly throaty chuckle when she was at once amused and slightly displeased. But Sylvia never did show Bernice that letter.
When she removed the letter from the envelope, at first the words didn’t make sense. She checked to make sure that her reading glasses were on, even though, of course, Sylvia had seen the words. There were words and phrases such as “redevelopment” and “repurposing” and “mixed use” and, more ominously, “vacating the premises” and “failure to comply.” It took Sylvia a moment to realize that the “premises” under discussion in this letter were this home, her efficiency apartment. She’d lived here for decades, since shortly after Bernice had left her for destinations unknown. Sylvia never did find out where, and never tried to track her down. When she thought “left her,” Sylvia had to catch herself. Bernice had never really been “with her,” truth be told. No matter how deeply Sylvia had yearned for that to be the case. Her beautiful Bernice. La bella Bernice. After Bernice was gone, Sylvia used to play with alliteration before drifting into sleep.
Sylvia put her hands on the table, clasped around the letter, noting how swollen and flecked with brown spots her hands were. If Bernice were still alive, she wouldn’t have let her hands reach such a state, Sylvia thought. It was too early to go to bed. Instead she decided to sit in the one easy chair in the apartment, the one opposite the kitchen table. Next to it was a side table, on which her mother’s portrait stood. Taken just before her passing, her mother peered from the frame, as steely and unflinching as ever. When Bernice left, Sylvia never told her mother. She didn’t see the point, but she wondered if her mother sensed it anyway. Mothers always know. In those months after Bernice’s departure, Sylvia thought about her father, not for the first time certainly, but intensively, relentlessly, as if the grief over both the loss of Bernice and never knowing her father had become intertwined, undistinguishable even.
After staring at her mother’s portrait, Sylvia’s eyes roamed the walls of her efficiency apartment. Or was it a studio? Sylvia never really knew the difference between the two. In any case, “efficiency” was more applicable. Sylvia was nothing if not efficient and never struggled with her small space. Her home was more than enough for her. Unlike her colleagues who bemoaned their inadequate urban living quarters bursting with tchotchkes and memorabilia, Sylvia collected nothing. Aside from the few work clothes she’d once needed and the furniture basics, there was very little in her apartment.
Even her refrigerator was only lightly stocked. After she threw away the remaining chocolates when Bernice left her, Sylvia stopped eating sweets altogether. She now kept her figure trim on salads delivered by the one grocery store willing to drive into the neighborhood. And if her figure was less sturdy with advancing age, it nonetheless remained trim. Surveying her home from the one armchair, Sylvia wondered who could possibly want this efficiency apartment, and with such urgency, such vehemence. And how absurd, how cruel, to have addressed the envelope by hand. “Failure to comply” indeed!
Of course, Sylvia knew the whole building, even the whole block, would soon be torn down. She wasn’t surprised by this; it was probably a good thing for the city, she had to admit. There were big plans for the area, with its proximity to the water and the city. Rahel had commented on that proximity when she came to visit Sylvia after her mother had passed away, quietly in her sleep. Rahel said it must be nice to live in such a convenient, central location. Sylvia only smiled in agreement, helping Rahel take off her coat and hanging it neatly in the one closet. Rahel had insisted on coming, even though Sylvia wasn’t really up to it and just wanted to lie in bed. But she couldn’t refuse Rahel; she couldn’t deprive her mother of the honor of her single condolence caller. There were no mirrors to cover in Sylvia’s apartment, except the one on the small medicine cabinet door, since Sylvia hated to look at herself in the mirror even on the best of days.
Rahel and Sylvia sat together largely in silence, since Sylvia wasn’t sure what was acceptable to convey to Rahel about her mother, a woman who never married, who raised a daughter alone, and who never tried to fix Sylvia up with men she knew were “looking.” Somehow, she felt that Rahel understood, without Sylvia’s saying anything at all. During that condolence call, Sylvia was tempted to ask Rahel if she’d ever heard anything about her father, but she never did. It was her mother’s day, after all.
Night was closing in on her. And on the building and neighborhood, too, Sylvia thought with a smile. Sylvia stood up from the armchair, returned the letter to the envelope, and then placed the envelope in a walnut box in her bureau drawer with the letter opener alongside. She didn’t really know where she’d go at this late date, with her arthritis and varicose veins and swollen, brown-speckled hands. The assisted living facilities that she’d seen advertised on television, with their glossy, beige interiors and residents rolling along merrily in their motorized wheelchairs, were all, of course, out of reach for her.
But Sylvia knew she’d find a way. Just as she’d found a way after Bernice left her, just as she’d found a way after her mother had passed away. Her mother, who raised Sylvia by herself to be equally self-reliant, to know the Hebrew alphabet, would have had it no other way, would not have allowed her to give in. Sylvia could hear her mother now, as the refrigerator began its song. She could hear her mother speaking as her mother had donned her coat after a visit to this very apartment, in a building soon to be razed, telling Sylvia to remember to write. And not rote one-pagers, either, but letters, as they were meant to be written, with reflection and insight. And in tidy, unhurried penmanship, of course, so that she could show them off to her neighbors. So that she could know that her child, her one-and-only, was well in the world.