It just never occurred to me to discuss the door jamb.
The kids were little, which is to say that they were almost always messy, which was not great, and often sticky-handsy, which was even worse. The first two vertical feet of walls and corners and door jambs of our little house could, to an observant mom, serve as a kind of map or journal, or, depending on the day, Petri dish or forensics file. If I paid close attention during the end-of-the day scrub, I would be rewarded with a complete history of the day’s events: art supplies inappropriately inflicted on the infrastructure, illicit snacks of pantry contraband, stolen while I was on the phone.
Organic matter of every kind, some of which suggested events and injuries which had somehow gone unreported and unnoticed: Oh, God, is that blood? I would wonder, before realizing with relief that it was strawberry jelly. Continuing my investigation, Russian-Squatter-dancing to remain at toddler-height, paper towels and Windex in hand, the truth of the matter would be revealed, and, depending on the nature of said matter, I might have to stand all the way up and return with the big guns: a dramatic “UGH!” (or worse), Clorox spray, a cloth so hot it nearly burned my hand.
We lived in a neighborhood where many of the tiny Cape Cod houses had only an upstairs bath. and the novelty and luxury of a “powder room”, which was really just a half-bath off the kitchen, had helped convince us to buy the house even though it was slightly more than we could afford. In reality, this half-bath was more in the kitchen than off it, and was a place where neither privacy nor cleanliness was guaranteed. This was largely because, though we couldn’t possibly have been potty training for the whole of the dozen years we were in that house—could we?—in my memory of it, there is always the blue and white potty-training potty chair on the floor. The sink was too high for the little people for whom handwashing was both most challenging and most necessary, and though I pined for some iteration of an adorably hand-painted stepstool, one that would convey a grasp of decor and life which I found elusive, I had settled for a cheap, unfinished one, and darkened it with Minwax stain to nearly match the hardwood floors. To make do.
The only thing exceeding the obvious scarcities of cleanliness and of leisure time was a more pervasive scarcity of money. None of us living in the tiny Capes had the kind of extra money that afforded help with housecleaning or hand painting or home improvement, and we made do together: we taught each other how to make curtains and chair cushions, helped sponge paint each other’s nurseries. During a particularly industrious period, I took up upholstery, investing in a crawbar-like tool and a roll of folding metal edging, and fully upholstered a wing chair in my basement. If we wanted something done, we knew that we mostly had to do it, as best we could, ourselves.
In time, though, the balance of money and time shifted, and we had a little extra money sometimes, if we stuck to the budget. As the oldest of my kids began school and homework and sports, the house started to look more and more beat up; it was clear that neither the Windex and the Clorox nor my best attempts at time management were doing the job. The kitchen trim began to look awful, and, frankly, gross. It was clearly worn out, but so was I; I was going to need some help. I was going to have to hire a painter.
Still, the details of “hiring out” were mostly new to me: how you have to think about the specific questions that a painter will ask, like Which sheen of paint would you like, and Where exactly would you like the job to start and stop, and What would you like me to do about this part? Which is why, while I was talking with Tom the Painter that morning, before he got started and before I went upstairs to get the toddler ready for preschool, as we outlined the job at hand, it did not occur to me to discuss specifically what should be done about the door jamb. It should have. I know that now. I understand that what followed was completely my fault. Still, I wondered then as I sometimes wonder now, How could Tom the Painter—a gentle giant of a character, the size of whose heart was exceeded only by the enormously generous size of his t-shirts, whose pride in his work was outshone only by his love for the grandson he was raising—have done such a thing? Is that even a reasonable question? Was I just foolish, or crazy, to ask it? I still don’t know.
What I do know is this: when I came downstairs after getting the baby ready for preschool, it was done, the reality of my failure and the gravity of its consequences laid bare. Tom had begun his painting at the door jamb of the bathroom that was really more in the kitchen than off it, and all of the pencil marks were gone. The annotated history of my people—my little people, my this-much-taller-than-last-year people, my people on their birthdays and on the fourth of July and on the first day of school, my people on days where they just looked so much taller that we had to check, let’s just see, go stand up against the wall and I’ll get a pencil—had been erased.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled up to preschool, my nose red and my face blotchy from the ugly cry on the drive. I pulled myself together briefly on arrival, but burst into tears anew when my friend Kitzi asked me gently what was wrong.
“My painter…” I sobbed….”painted the door jamb….”
She leaned toward me and waited, concerned but confused. “Yes?”
“It was where…where…” I could hardly speak,”…you know, where we m-m-mark how tall the kids are.”
“Ooohhh,” she said, and then “Ooohhh” again, as it set in. “I am so sorry.” I could see that she was relieved that the news wasn’t worse, but when she wrapped her arms around me, I knew she understood. That door jamb. We all had one.
Emboldened by her empathy, I doubled down. “He painted over them!” I spit, outraged and crazy now, accusatory. “They’re GONE!” I pulled myself together a bit. “He painted over them and now they are gone forever,” I added dramatically, and before I knew it, we were laugh-crying together. I knew that I looked like a madwoman. That in some important way, I had lost my marbles. That this wasn’t about the door jamb, or the painting, and definitely not about poor, accused Tom. It wasn’t even about the pencil marks. It was about what they represented.
We had started making the marks right after we bought the house, when we still dreamed of being more than just us playing house with a baby, before we were the bona fide family we’d become. When they were just single toddler-lines, close to the ground, a whole blank jamb spreading out above them. They’d been there as long as we had, marking not just the toddler’s height, but how we’d grown as a family.
You could tell when I had been the scribe, the marks shaky and slanted from the child wiggling beneath my pencil, his or her chubby and quite-possibly-cheating feet side by side against the wall. When their dad had held the pencil, the marks were darker, straighter and more sure, made definitively and accurately, the child’s head quiet under his firm, fair hand.
Each line had born initials and a date which, for any number of reasons, warranted measurement of how much the child had grown. The first-child lines leading the way up the wall, the younger brother’s dogged but ultimately fruitless pursuit. The daunting distance for the tiny toddler girls, beginning again so far behind their brothers, so close to the floor. The giant spaces during adolescence which you could hardly believe and with which you could hardly keep up, creating spaces you feared might separate them from the rest of us forever.
Sometimes the differences between lines was significant; sometimes, even though a lot of time had passed, not much seemed to have happened. Taken together, the dozens and dozens of marks made a timeline that felt like a kind of permanent record. That said that we were here, that reminded us of how many other, ordinary days we’d been right here, in the busy, germy bathroom. That promised that no matter how much alike the long days were, or how much the same the kid looked when you saw him every single day, we were making some kind of measurable progress. That we were doing something important, reaching milestones. raising kids who were actually growing up even if it felt like the potty chair was still and would always be on the floor of the bathroom. Even if we were still mostly making do.
Tom the Painter had felt terrible, when I’d yelped, and then started to cry, right there in my kitchen, and had jumped into action. Explaining and then just apologizing, he set the brush down, and furiously wiped off what wet paint off he could, talking suddenly of his grandson. When my husband got home from work that night, he taped a long piece of paper to the wall and shined a worklight on it, painstakingly reconstructing lines from the faint fragments left behind. He worked for hours, adding names and dates that seemed like they could be right, though I think he made a lot of them up. “Here, here it is! See? It isn’t gone!” he said convincingly when he was done, as if explaining object permanence to a child. But I still felt the loss. We saved the paper, and even moved it to the new house, but honestly, I don’t know what happened to it after that. It was never quite the same.
What do people do? Do they keep the pencil marks forever? Do they never clean, or paint, or move, or manage to lose the big paper they thought might somehow substitute for the complete recorded and annotated history of their little people?
Yeah, I don’t know that either. I just know that if you are not really careful, one day you will look up and in one glance, the pencil marks and the little heads they measured are gone. And then you will wonder how the world will ever know—and how even you can be really sure—that you really were there every day, all those days when it seemed like nothing was happening, and the potty chair would never not be in the bathroom, and there would never not be possibly-organic matter on the walls on the first two feet of your house that required you to burn your hands with hot water and Clorox. When you thought you might never have any help with anything, and that you would always have to make do.
When you discover that what felt like permanence was anything but. And you realize what all the grown ups always knew: that there really is no permanent record. That there will be no adequately recorded and annotated history of your people that might be an AP class one day so that other people can learn about this most wonderful time, this civilization that was, to you, the most important group of people in human history.
There are only memories of cowlicks and chubby feet and birthdays and days in which you marveled that the kid before you could look so much bigger. And the memories of marks which once seemed like they would last forever but which could not. They were, after all, only written in pencil.
5 thoughts on “Pencil marks”
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Beth, I remember that morning and the story of the painter. I love your writing and the reminder that one day those visible reminders of our children’s growth will be erased. Now we just have to hold onto those memories as long as possible! Thank you for sharing.
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Thank you, Barb!
Love this, ❤️