Monday, July 27, 2020

I Invented Graph Paper

The best time of the day when I was a toddler was storytime, before nap or before bed, Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak or a favorite scratch-and-sniff Christmas book that I think came from Hallmark. One Sunday after church when I was three, I pestered my parents to read to me, endlessly revisiting the question, despite being told no or later, we’re busy the frustration of every toddler. Fed up, I taught myself to read with Where the Wild Things Are, using my memory of the story to sort through the words on the page. I took my favorite pen and copied the words inside the cover of a coloring book. I had been practicing writing my name for weeks. The physical act of writing soothed me. Holding the pen, laying the ink from the ballpoint onto the page -- smoothly, without wobbles -- filled my attention, required a focus that created a cool quiet in my mind and a stillness in my muscles. The jangle of attentiveness receded.

By six, I had gone from tracing letters to writing letters, mostly to my grandmother. When I didn’t have a letter to write, I liked to draw houses and plan gardens. I had a harder time with house shapes, and divided the paper into small squares. 

One visit at my grandparent’s house over the winter holidays, I asked my grandfather for some typing paper, because I liked that it was unlined. He brought me four or five sheets. I asked if he had a ruler, and he looked at me funny, but went down to his drafting table in the basement and brought back the neatest ruler I had ever seen -- a long triangle with three different types of measurements, one on each side. I put dots at regular intervals along the top, then the bottom and both sides of the page, then connected them vertically and horizontally, placing my pen on the metal edge sticking out of the third side of the ruler to keep the marks even and sharp. The regularity of the exercise was meditative; I started a second sheet instead of drawing up the latest cottage-with-a-loft design that had occurred to me while I was taking a bath the night before. I fantasized about the house that Pa built for Ma and Mary and Laura and baby Carrie, and wondered what it would have looked like if they had been able to stay in the house on the prairie instead of having to leave when the treaty with the Indians fell through. I decided there should be maple trees for gathering syrup, then added space for a barn with milking space for the cow next to the stalls for the horses.

My grandfather came through the kitchen nook and looked over my shoulder. 
“What are you doing?”
I sighed. My answer to this question always seemed to disappoint my parents, but neither of my grandparents had ever asked before. I took a leap of faith and explained.

“Well, when I draw houses, I’m not really any good at it. I get confused on how big to make the trees and how much space to put in the kitchen or for the fireplace, and so I divide the paper into squares and it makes it easier to choose the shape and sizes.” I looked up from the page, waiting for him to tell me that there were plenty of coloring books that I could use and to stop wasting my time.
He thinks a minute, standing behind me, looking over the paper I’m working on. There’s nothing to see yet, and I chew my lip.

“What do you want to be when you grow up? An architect?” 
I pick up my pencil; the blueberry bushes need to be in the front yard. I draw as I answer.

“No; I want to be an astronaut. I want to go see what it’s like on the moon and then when I come back from space I want to live in a cabin in the forest like Big House in the Woods. I want to write stories in the morning and read in the afternoon and listen to stories at night by the fire.” The carrots and lettuce need to be by the side door, the one by the kitchen. 

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and disappeared down the basement stairs once more. 

When he came back up, he handed me a pad of paper the color of old spearmint and continued on to the kitchen to pour coffee into his cup. I was in awe as I took in the pages with a repeating pattern of green lines in squares, a deep emerald dark line every fifth square. I had never thought of making a second set of larger squares on the page. This would make everything so much easier. And there were pages and pages -- a whole tablet! I look up, across the kitchen table and beyond the island. My grandfather is beside the stove; his head nearly touches the exhaust hood. The light from the window over the sink plays hide and seek in the shadows of the sleeve as he spoons sugar into his mug, a ting-ting-tang tolls from the cup as he stirs.

“Where did you get this?” I breathed.

“It’s called graph paper,” he replied as though talking about the sun or the rain. “Engineers use it.” He came back through the nook, the smell of coffee rich on him as he bent and kissed my head.