Sunday, January 6, 2013

It's About the Words

In November, my husband Dave turned sixty. We have marveled over this impressive number, all of the many decades inherent in attaining it, and prided ourselves on not being distressed at the age it represents. We feel great, look pretty good too, so what’s the big deal? Still, I wanted to commemorate the event with a present that had meaning.

I had an idea. My father used to have a silver cigarette case inscribed with the signatures of the ushers in my parents’ wedding. I decided to brainstorm names, phrases, and places from Dave’s life and have them engraved on…something. Probably not a cigarette case. I’d used Inscribe-It in Monroe before, had been a little intimidated by the salesman, but figured it was convenient. I’d go there.

Pen in hand, I began my list of Dave’s schools, our wedding date, inside jokes, favorite songs, beloved destinations. The list was long – how much would fit on whatever it was I chose? Oh well, the guy would tell me what would work and what wouldn’t. I crossed items off, and added more on, added more on, and added more on.

Dave’s birthday was a month away, plenty of time, but I felt an urgency to order this special present, so to Inscribe-It I hurried. Behind the desk at the back of the store sat the man I remembered. He was thin and blond, his protruding eyes magnified by gold-rimmed glasses. His smile was a curve of the lips that went no further than that uplift. “May I help you?” he asked in a thick German accent. Great. Too many war movies; the accent always unnerves me.

In an end-over-end, more-than-enough way, I described my vision and he escorted me from glass case to glass case, pointing at bookends and boxes and vases. Not a cigarette case to be seen, and I settled on a sturdy pewter tankard. We have an over-abundance of mugs at our house, but this gift was about the words, and the tankard would fit in with our colonial home.

We returned to the desk, and Mr. Engraver prepared for dictation. “How much will fit?” I asked.

“As much as you want,” he said. “Of course, the words will be small.”

“Can you write them in several columns so the letters will be larger?”

“No,” he said definitively.

I shrugged and launched into my list: our college, our kids’ names, and a favorite song -“Trinity, Tucker and Lisa, Casey, Serenade.” I went on and on. Not concerned about price, not concerned about the tankard, so pleased to have thought of a meaningful gift.

When Mr. Engraver told me the final cost, I laughed. It was high, absurd for a tankard with two lists of words, but Dave was turning sixty. That gave it value.

We agreed on a pick-up date the following Friday. I paid him and took the receipt.

Hurricane Sandy blasted through that week and closed everything down. I stopped by once and the shop was closed. When finally I caught the store open and the proprietor in, I was eager to have the present in hand. Gingerly, Mr. Engraver opened a white box, parted the white tissue, and with white gloves, lifted the tankard from its shrine. “Careful! Don’t smudge it!” he said as I reached to inspect it.

The words were tiny. Tiny. I could just read them. “He’ll need a magnifying glass,” I said. “Yes. He might,” agreed the engraver. “If, at any time, you want to add more, I can run another column here, down the side.”

What? He’d told me he couldn’t do that. But I didn’t say anything. Didn’t want to make a fuss. After he oh-so-carefully placed it back in its wrappings, I took the tankard with its near illegible words and left the store.

Oddly, at the time, I thought the situation – the tiny letters, the crazy price - was funny, and as soon as I got home, I put a magnifying glass in the bag with the box so I wouldn’t forget it. I thought that was sort of funny too. A magnifying glass! Really!

Over Thanksgiving break, we had a family party for my husband because my son and his wife were home, but I saved Dave’s present for the actual day of his birthday. My daughter Casey and our friend Gerry joined us at an Italian restaurant for dinner. When Dave opened the white box, I handed him the magnifying glass. “And you’ll need your glasses too.”

“A tankard!” he said, turning it over and over, perhaps thinking, just what we need, another one… “Are there words on it?” he asked.

I rolled my eyes as he squinted through the magnifying glass and said, “The light reflection makes it tricky to read.” He angled the tankard to reduce the glare and with difficulty, and several mis-guesses, read the words. Mainly, he was frustrated. He appreciated the idea, but it was about the words….and he could barely read them.

When we got home, he put the tankard on a shelf. Later, I wrote the words out neatly on a piece of stationery, rolled it up, and tucked it in the tankard.

* * *

“Mom, you have to talk to that engraver,” said Casey after I told her about my disappointment over the way-too-tiny words and my conversations with the vendor.

“He won’t be able to do anything about it and …ugh. It will be unpleasant. I hate awkward exchanges. I just don’t feel up to it.”

“I do,” said my warrior princess. “I’ll talk to him….”

“No. No. If anything, I’ll do it.” But I doubted I would.

* * *

Last week, Casey called me at work. She didn’t feel well, but said she planned to go over to our house to do some laundry. In September she moved in with her boyfriend and between work and schedules, we don’t see her often. “Yay! So I’ll see you later,” I said.

A few hours passed and I checked in at the house. The phone rang, but no response. She must not be there. Letdown. I miss my girl and had looked forward to catching up while folding shirts and pairing socks.

When I left work, it was dark. As I drove the final lap on our road, a car was smack on my butt. Honestly. Before backing into the parking area in front of our house, I pulled over to let the driver pass. I watched his headlights disappear down the road as I angled into position and shifted into reverse to slide into my usual spot.

Wait. What was that sound?

A glance in my rearview mirror. Casey’s brand new, smiling, neon purple-blue Hyundai. Her most beloved possession. In my spot. And I’d hit it.


I parked my old dear of a Caravan and with heart pounding, knelt before Casey’s car. A dent. Not awful, but a dent. A dent upon the shiny perfection of the front right fender. I felt sick.

Dave and Casey brightened in welcome as I let myself into the house. They were chatting at the kitchen counter, enjoying a glass of red wine while Dave prepared some pasta.

“Oh Sweetie. You won’t be as happy to see me when I tell you I just hit your car.”

Her face fell. “What? Mom. How? You knew I’d be here. How could you hit it?” Her words tumbled as the three of us went outside.

“Well, I thought you weren’t here. I called earlier and you didn’t answer. And it was dark and I was watching the other car drive off and I wasn’t expecting anything in my spot. I just pulled in like I always do…” my words trailed off. It didn’t matter. I should have looked behind me. I did, didn’t I? Not carefully enough.

Dave stood silently, one hand curled thoughtfully at his chin.

My daughter and I cried, hugging each other, standing in the yard. Me, apologizing over and over. Casey, once she’d succeeded in stuffing down all the recriminations that must have been racing to be aired, beating against her lips, bubbling for expression, saying, “It’s okay. It was an accident. It’s just a thing.” So good. So controlled. So forgiving.

* * *

The next day, I decided to talk to the engraver. I’m not sure why, but in some way, denting Casey’s fender was the impetus. I’d disappointed my daughter and she felt I should speak up about the tiny words on the tankard. It’s not that I thought she’d be proud of me exactly, but something like that.

So to Inscribe-It I returned. Before denting Casey’s car, sleep had eluded me for several nights as I’d mentally confronted the man with blond hair and protruding eyes, but I was surprisingly calm when I entered his shop.

Mr. Engraver greeted me blandly with “How can I help you?” and I’m not sure he recognized me. He listened without expression as I pointed out his contradictory statements about the additional columns and told him the significance of the gift was lost due to the illegibility of the words. He reminded me that he’d said the letters would be small. Told me he’d been able to read the words and showed me a sizing chart with letters even more miniscule than those on the tankard. Stated there was nothing he could do.

But he acknowledged that it must have been sad when the present was not received as hoped. He agreed that greater clarity with other customers would be worthwhile. And that was it. But I left the store with a lighter step.

What had I hoped for? I knew the engraver wouldn’t take the tankard back or re-do it; there was a prominent sign in the store stating that policy. I like to think I wanted to improve service for others, and that was part of it. I wanted to remember everything I’d rehearsed - that would have been a coup right there - and initially, pleasing Casey was wrapped up in nudging me to action. But above all, I wanted to say my piece without anger or accusations or, heaven forbid, tears…and I did it.


Katherine said...

Lea... I've done the same thing, backed into my brothers spotless car.. that awful thunk. Funny thing about engravers.. they ALL seem to have thick German accents as I had a similar experience with one in downtown Fairfield. Ah well, that a well-written post about errant sales clerks, tailgating drivers and dents in cars --- the good news is you and Dave have each other and 2 lovely kids to boot! Happy New Year and Happy belated b-day to Dave! Katherine

tootsielala55 said...

Iconic Lea Sylvestro! Now, tell me, when can I be able to buy 20-40 copies of a first edition Lea Sylvestro collection of essays so that my friends can discover you again and again and again?

Gerry said...

I feel honored to have been included! I did not hear the part two to the story - you were very brave to return and confront him - it doesn't matter what the result is - just that you did it!

Unknown said...

Lea- I love how honestly you tell your life stories - so much so that you stir up familiar feelings and make me feel, yes, I am not alone! I find that often what seems intimidating, once accomplished is no big deal. I will try to remember that in the next months to come ;).
Thanks for sharing! Sue

Laurie said...

You faced your fears...bravo!