Just before our newest year, one now barreling toward the halfway point in our mad dash to the end of our times, I sent an email to Liz Higbie, who “womans” the front desk at the Mid-American Cleaning Contractors office here in Lima, asking whether the new desk blotters had arrived yet. Because I neglected to include the word “calendar,” feeling it was self-evident, Liz emailed back a concise response, as in, “What’s a blotter?”
As soon as I read that, I had to laugh, because I’ve found that’s the best way to laugh at this whole aging thing, because that’s exactly what was at the heart of her confusion. You see, Liz is still in that wonderful phase of life with school-age kids and all that goes with it, in other words a full decade and a half younger than I.
So, it was on to the phone to explain to her that what I call a desk blotter is actually a calendar pad that covers the surface of a desk and provides a smoother writing surface, something greatly appreciated by those of us who spend quite a bit of time trying to coax words out of the ends of our pens.
Then, came the “Oh, I see” moment for Liz, as she, I’m thinking, became more aware of how the words we use to communicate our thoughts and desires have changed over time and were brought from regions far from where we find ourselves living. For me, perched on the precipice of my Medicare moments, I remember an era when people used fountain pens, just like the ones the good Sisters of Charity thought should be the preferred writing instruments for us back in the 1950s and early ’60s. The desk pads were made of absorbent paper that would catch any drips that sometimes occurred unexpectedly with those pens (often, as I recall, in my shirt pocket during my St. Charles school days).
When ballpoints became overwhelmingly preferred and prevalent, blotters, as people knew them from the late 19th century on, began to disappear, replaced by calendar pads. However, that doesn’t mean the term disappeared, at least for this old guy!
I’m sure had I told Liz when I called her that I’d just purchased a new davenport, her perplexity would have deepened. I’d have had to explain to her that “davenport,” much like the words “aspirin” and “kleenex,” was a genericized trademark that morphed from proper noun to common after enough common usage by us common folk, and, I know, that’s a lot of commons! Davenport was the original brand name of a sofa by the now-defunct A.M. Davenport and Co., of Cambridge, Massachusetts, my father’s home state, which explains how it worked its way into his vocabulary and then on into mine.
As a matter of fact, so many of the words of my youth came from my father’s New England and my Canadian-born mother’s Nova Scotia. In Dad’s Boston, drug stores were apothecaries, sub sandwiches were grinders and milkshakes were frappes. All are still words I’ll use today. In my mother’s province, chow-chow was a pickled side dish, what the rest of the world, I suppose, would call relish when slathering a generous portion onto a grilled hot dog.
Like so much of the past, it’s difficult for me to let go of such words because it’s an admission that time goes far, far too quickly, so I’ll still sometimes refer to the fridge as an ice box, even though it’s been multiple decades since a horse-drawn ice wagon delivered large blocks of ice to people to keep their food from spoiling. And, I’ll still refer to the room with the TV in it as the front room, even though it’s in a room in the back of my house. Of course, the reason I’ll do that is because in my 1950s Chicago-area Oak Lawn home, the front room, the room just inside the front door, was both the place for that black-and-white RCA and the gathering place where our family strengthened our bonds.
So, I’ll continue to try to grab a hold of the big and little hands on the clock and slow them down by using the words passed down to me from a generation that, no doubt, got them from the generation before. And, so it goes.
So, listen, Liz, in December, if the good Lord is willing and my creeks don’t rise too precipitously, meaning I’m still here, I’m going to ask again for a blotter status, and I don’t want the least bit of hesitation in your responding to a perfectly reasonable query from someone who tends to have a little trouble letting go of the past.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.