Handwriting by MacLean

She was a young child to start school, just five, but she was smarter than a whip. Granny walked with her the first day to introduce her to her teacher. Mabel, her sister, older by ten years, was commissioned to bring her home for lunch. But as the days went on, Mama did not want to go to school. She was not strong. She lingered and wavered. She wheedled to no avail. She must go to school.

At ninety five, she could remember the name of every teacher she had and had visions in her mind of each of them, could tell stories about them. Funny thing was, she loved school and knew from her earliest years that she wanted to be a teacher.

She remembered how her mother had struggled each week to provide her with money so that she could participate in the savings program at school. Each child had a bank book and each week they deposited twenty-five cents. A dollar a month. She often repeated this story because it had left an indelible print on her ethics. She saved.

To her amazement, at the end of her schooling, she had over one hundred dollars in her bank account! It was a lot of money when bread was five cents and an ice cream cone, ten. It was an established habit and thereafter when she was working, she always put money away, every pay cheque.

She remembered the stern Miss Caldwell, too. Miss Caldwell was the first principal she had in Winnipeg schools when she was teaching. She relentlessly tested her teachers and their fitness for teaching. She could drop in at any time and demand that the teacher find a word in the dictionary by opening the page within two or three pages of where it should be found. It was a very important skill for teachers of the Nineteen Thirties.

Miss Caldwell also demanded a very strict adherence to form. Writing and printing on the blackboard should be precise and clear, always aligned in very straight ruled lines. Mother had studied the MacLean Method of Handwriting and exceeded Miss Caldwell’s expectations on this point without difficulty.

Mother and her two sisters had so firmly internalized the MacLean Method that you could barely tell the difference between their handwriting. Eighty years later, in her early nineties, her handwriting had hardly wavered.

Countless children had written ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, ” over and over until they could flawlessly, uniformly, copy Mr. MacLean’s rounded script. This phrase contained every letter in the alphabet. In Grade Three, I remember verifying all twenty six letters were there. I sat at my desk, inkwell in the upper corner, filled regularly by a student monitor, dipping my steel nibbed pen into the pot, blurting ink blobs across the page, concentrating as I formed the same phrase Mother had learned to write years before. My little tongue licked my upper lip, back and forth, back and forth in concentration as I struggled to match Mr. MacLean’s beautiful script. It was still the method of writing when I started learning to write at school but I did not succeed.

Father, on the other hand, had been influenced by a more cursive, lean and economical European handwriting and then, after his Engineer training and the strict lettering required for draughtsmen’s drawings, he had acquired a more personal style that I found fascinating.

Father’s sister, our Aunt Delia, had hand writing that was quavery and the lines began to descend perilously into the page while still in her mid eighties, which most likely should be attributed to her eye troubles. But mother, who had had cataracts removed and who was progressively more blind, finally legally blind, could still form her letters beautifully, by some kinetic magic.

Now this may seem like a change of subject, but you will see how it connects up.

Mother had difficulty in walking. Her osteoporosis had worn down her right hip and it had been replaced in 1997. Now, don’t you just wonder why one hip deteriorates and not the other?

After a long time in rehabilitation, she was home and walking every day, taking walks by herself, if need be, a mile or so away. She joined the walking club, early morning before the stores opened, to go circles around the stores. It was an activity designed to keep seniors walking in safe circumstances, at the shelter from wind, rain, cold or other extremes of weather, with an added benefit to the merchants that the seniors often stayed to socialize, to have a cup of tea and a snack and afterwards, and to buy in the stores.

This worked for some five or six years, but then, other joints began to complain. Mother’s body was wearing out. We teased her about being Bionic Woman because of her replaced hip and her new, permanent lenses (inserted after the cataract operation) and her electronic hearing aid. Now her spine and and her knees were beginning to fail. On good days, she could get her exercise, but more and more, there were bad days. Bad days for her hip. Bad days for her knees. Bad days for her aching back. Aching days for her beautiful, gracious hands. Osteo was joined by arthritis and it would only get worse.

I separated from Franc in 1994. Much as I loved him and wanted our relationship to work, Franc had his own life problems to sort out and we just couldn’t keep living together. He had to do his next step on his own. It was painful, bitter and difficult as all separations are. I went away to Winnipeg on a six months assignment through my work. It gave a good solid closing to a relationship that had become very angry and negative. It gave me a very positive beginning at something new. I had some learning to do, myself.
I booked into the Fort Garry Hotel residence, an ideal place for business travellers. It granted more freedom than a regular hotel room because one could make meals in the kitchenette. It had less intrusive housekeeping. One could settle in for a while and yet still access the hotel offerings of restaurant, tuck shop, mail service, over night dry cleaning, et cetera, et cetera, and it was central.

After three days, I called Mom to see how she was. She was living alone in her house, aged eighty five, and managing but with enough struggle in her fierce need for independence that I was always attentive to her potential needs. Now I worried about her being on her own, and me, her only daughter within reasonable distance to respond to anything she might have difficulty with, gone half way across Canada. It would not be simple to get home in a hurry.

There was hesitation in her voice when I asked her how she was, but she said a little two definitively, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

I rattled on about my trip, the plane ride, finding the hotel. I told her about Arthur, a colleague formerly from the Vancouver office asking me to dinner at his home with his wife and six kids on the day after I arrived. Cathy had phoned and was ready to greet me at work on the Monday. She would invite me for dinner soon. She too had worked in the the Vancouver Office.

At the end of the conversation, Mother said, “I wasn’t going to tell you. But it’s alright anyhow. Everything is fine. I’m coping alright. I broke my arm.”

“Broke your arm!” I said, horrified. ” Broke your arm! And you are fine?” I said, shocked and concerned. “What happened?””

“I was just crossing the street just here, near the church and I tripped over the curb. I barely got away from the house. I fell and I broke my arm just at my wrist. Fortunately, a doctor was leaving his office from that medical building a half a block away. He saw me, took me to emergency. Made sure I was OK before he left me.”

“I’ve got a cast on my left hand. It’s difficult but I’m managing. Don’t worry. Violet came over and brought me dinner. The Smiths took me out for dinner last night. It’s spoiling my bridge plans, but otherwise I’m doing very well.”

There was nothing I could do but sympathize. There was no way I could go look after her from Winnipeg. I’d just gotten here. I was starting a new job. I couldn’t just ask to leave as soon as I had arrived. I phoned my sisters later but they also lived at a great distance, had jobs and couldn’t get away. We set up a schedule to phone her, taking turns so that she would at least have lots of phone company.

There was Otto, but I could never get hold of him by telephone. He hadn’t been schooled in care giving like we females had been. He would not let her starve; maybe would get her groceries for her. But who would help her dressing; help her dial a telephone; pour a kettle for her safely; cook a meal?

I’m much better at long stories than short, so I’d better get back to the point.

At the end of the fifth month of my very successful assignment, my fully recovered mother came to visit with me in Winnipeg. We spent the last four weeks together in her home town. With only a few minor clashes, we got along very well. She was, after all, in my home and so she was very flexible. The last weekend was the Queen’s birthday, otherwise known as the Victoria Day statutory holiday. I rented a car and we drove from Winnipeg to the small prairie towns of Plumas and Gladstone where her father had homesteaded. We drove up to Ashern where my father’s family had homesteaded. We stopped in Gimli where mother had once been for a summer vacation. We drove past Selkirk. We saw a sign for the town where she had had her first teaching job, but it was late and I was exhausted from our seven hundred kilometer jaunt around the province in the space of two days. We didn’t go there.

As we drove into Winnipeg, she started to navigate for me. Now you must understand that mother hated driving and she had no sense of direction. “Where are we going?” I asked rather petulantly. “Never mind,” she said in a voice that brooked no dissension .

“You’ll see when you get there.”

Exhausted as I was and thoroughly anxious to get home before I collapsed from fatigue, I dared not disobey. Finally, as we went up and down some less than familiar streets in the North End of Winnipeg, she said suddenly, “Stop! Stop here!” and I did.

Triumphantly she pointed to the two storey house on the corner.

“I was born in that house,” she said. “That room upstairs on the left was mine and Bessie’s, Mabel was at the back, the two boys shared a room. Father had to live downstairs in the living room because he was so sick, severely crippled with arthritis; and mother was in a day bed beside him in case he needed her in the night. ” Mother had not seen the house in fifty years or more.

“All five of us were born in this house. Upstairs. Granny never stayed in the hospital until she broke her hip at one hundred and three.”

She told me more about the family. She named all the neighbours along the street and told me what the fathers did for work – mostly engineers and mechanics for the railroad industry. Then she had me drive around the neighbourhood, pointing out the schools she had attended and those she had taught at. She drove me past where she and her siblings had attended the Salter Street Mission after school and on Sundays.

Although I was exhausted, I was thrilled. She had been with me almost a month. In all of our conversations about Winnipeg in its early days, she had steadfastly refused to go with me to see her family home. It was in the poor part of town and she had made such progress in her life that she was now living in an upper middle class district. What might I think of her poor beginnings? She did not want to leave me with a mental picture of it. It was best left unseen.

Now I had seen it, I had no such feelings as she imagined I might. I was delighted to have put context to her beginnings. Despite her worries, the district looked quite normal. The only thing that I remarked was that much of the land that had originally belonged to the homestead had been expropriated for a broad avenue leading up to a bridge and a highway out of town.

I marvelled that her father who had come to Canada with only his wits and his brawn at the age of seventeenhad built this beautiful two story home which, Mother recounted, had the best of everything – gas lights to begin with and then electricity, one of the first on the block, and a new fangled telephone which Grandmother fearfully refused to answer. He had bought land and built three homes in Winnipeg before he became crippled by his disease in his early thirties.

After an hour or more of slow driving around her early district, we went back to my apartment. Within a week, we had packed all our belongs, taken a plane back to Vancouver, with my belongings shipped and following.
We had a long talk about what I proposed to do and where I expected to land when I went back to Burnaby. The upshot was that she offered for me to live with her and we could keep each other company. The house was too big for her alone. If I did not come, she would have to consider selling the house and going into an apartment. But she wanted no strings attached. She wanted to remain independent, go her own way. She expected me to do the same. It would take some thinking. We both had to be sure.

I’d had more than my share of mother driving my life, telling me what to do and how to do it. She was the supreme matriarch. Did I want to live with that? But we had been very cooperative and good house mates over the previous month.

I won’t tell you all the thought processes I went through to get there. The weighing of this against that advantage and disadvantage took some serious thinking. In the end, I decided that we’d give it a try, and we did.
Seven years into the bargain, Mother was slowly getting more and more dependent. Her mobility problems earned her a handicap pass. Her eyesight was failing rapidly. I was helping her with all her banking. Soon it was difficult for her to go out to banks as bills came in. She engaged the family lawyer to give me power of attorney on her banking and all her affairs. We talked about the will and what she wanted to do with it.

I really didn’t worry about managing her accounts and paying her bills until Cousin Mary suggested I take a course for Primary Care-givers. “You need to be careful,” she cautioned. “There are legal implications. If Aunt El used to give gifts to charity, for example, you can’t just continue to give out those gifts, with your signature, even if she asks you and you have power of attorney. Same with gifts for the family. You have to be able to account for everything.”

I never did take the course. It was dreadfully hard to find time. But I became ultra cautious. Mother tithed. She gave very generously one-tenth of her income to charities of one kind or another, in October, just before the Christmas rush on the mail services, so that she could get her tax slips back on time. Now she wanted me to write the cheques for her in large denominations.

We sat at the large dining room table one evening to alphabetize all the charity envelopes that had come through the mail, that she had saved for this occasion. There were sometimes three of any one charity and sometimes, like for the cancer related charities who had special divisions like Breast Cancer, Prostate Cancer, Lung Cancer, BC Division, Research division, National division, etc. there were lots more. Once the envelopes were in order, she chose which charities she preferred. We had a pile of those who would receive large donations and those who would get token support. For me it was tedious but she relished the time we spent at it. It was something to do in a world that increasingly had nothing she could do and it gave her a sense of accomplishment.

Once I would have written the cheques for her, but now I wouldn’t sign them unless mine was just a countersigning signature. This posed a problem. She could no longer see well. Because she could barely see, she tried to write large so that she could check it out afterwards in the corners of her peripheral vision.

At first, she asked me to place her hand where she should start. With her lovely MacLean’s script, she could write her name by memory. But as soon as I put her hand on the paper, she would adjust her hand to be comfortable to write and lose the starting point. We would begin again. And again.

Later I began to place a large black dot with felt pen at the starting place. It became a part of her changing signature.

“How much have I written. Am I up to my last name? she would ask. “What letter do I start with now? Do I have enough room? Am I still on the cheque? Is this right?”

For charities, for birthdays, and Christmas, her lovely MacLean’s Method signature was changing, falling crookedly downwards, beginning to tremble like Aunt Delia’s, but on a good day, it was still her lovely signature. On her weaker days, it could be an inch tall, fat and quaveringly round with a letter or two missing off the end of the the cheque.

It was a marvel how she could cover up her blindness; it was a marvel she could still write at all. There was some kinetic memory that she could draw on, writing by feel.

As I was clearing up some of her affairs from the residence, found this little notebook. “Please put my feet flat for me” written in passable Macleans and “J and F here”, a reminder that visitors had come so that in the evening, she could remember who had come to visit . What a marvelous lady! .

12 Responses to “Handwriting by MacLean”

  1. Georgina Kirkman Says:

    Hello. There was no signature on this, but I too studied the McLean Method. I was 12 in 1959, and I still have my writing practice book. It was a methold that really worked, is my opinion. I liked your story very much. I wonder where the person went to school, I was in New Brunswick. thank you.

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks so much for your comment.

    In answer to your question, Mom went to school in Winnipeg Manitoba in 1917 and must have learned writing a few years later. In the 1950s when I was in elementary school, we were still being taught Maclean’s method.
    I agree that the method really worked.

  3. Dona Says:

    Dear lookingforbeauty,
    I so enjoyed this story because it reminded me so much of me and my mom who was also a teacher before I was born. I also learned the Maclean’s method of writing in school and became as successful as my mother did. In grade 6 I won first prize in a writing contest that I am not sure now how far reaching it was. I grew up on a tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland and I think the contest involved all of Newfoundland. My mother passed away in 2000 at the age of 83 but up until the last year of her life, her writing was unmistakably Mr. Maclean’s method and only in her last few months did it become quavery and slightly off the horizontal. It was very sad to watch this deterioration progress and this story made me so nostalgic I felt I had to share my thoughts with you. I still use the Maclean’s method today. In fact that’s what led me to your story. I am decorating my neice’s wedding cake later in the summer and she wanted the words “How do I love thee, let me count the ways” written on each tier of the cake and I have been looking for fonts to make up a stencil. I thought that on line I could find a Mclean’s font that would be perfect. Instead, I found your wonderful story. Oops, I think like you also, I am better at long story’s than short ones so I will go now and continue my search for something on this method that may remind me of a few “loops” or “tails” that I have become careless with in the last 50 or so years. šŸ™‚

  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for such a lovely response to my story. I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know.

  5. franz Says:

    It’s too bad that we can not teach our doctors to adopt this writing method.
    After seeing some of their handwritings it should be mandatory for professionals to have these skills before receiving a degree. Wouldn’t you agree??

  6. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I absolutely do agree – or require them to “write” their prescriptions and notes by computer so that no errors by fault of bad handwriting can occur.

    Do you think that pharmacists have to learn Doctor’s Scrawl typeface to be able to get their degrees?

  7. Virginia Porter Says:

    What a beautiful story about a beautiful lady. I was researching the Maclean method of writing because that is what my mother was taught in Canada – she moved to Edinburgh at 13 because sadly her father died (she was from a Scottish family) but unfortunately, instead of admiring her beautiful style, they tried to change it to their style (and admitted their mistake later). My own efforts at the English upright copperplate were disastrous (left handed) until my mother showed me how she had been taught and turned everything round for me (not that my school approved of the slant). Much later on in life I took up Calligraphy and find myself with a new course to teach – ‘Improve your handwriting’! I have not found any examples of the actual Maclean handwriting but will keep looking. However I will share your story with my 89 year old mother who lives on her own, has osteoporosis, failing eyesight, memory problems and is an hour away by car. She very clearly remembers things from a long time past and will appreciate hearing of your mother, I know. Many, many thanks. Virginia

  8. Laura Says:

    I so enjoyed reading this!

    I do wonder, though: when I read her note, it looked like she’d written, “Please put bed flat for me.” Could that have made sense, too?

  9. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I think you got it! I wonder why I didn’t think of that before.
    Thanks for commenting,

  10. Jean Says:

    I too learned MacLean’s method. I taught my student’s MacLeans. I agree that all medical staff should have a standard readable form of handwriting. When my medical file was transferred from one doctor’s office to another’s it was for the most part unreadable due to the handwriting. Irritating, as I was the one who had to pay to have the file transferred.

  11. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jean,
    In answer to your wondering, Mom grew up in Winnipeg.

    I think it’s awful that you had to pay for the file transfer…

  12. Carolanne Reynolds Says:

    came across this when googling for MacLean’s Method.
    you might want to fix the ‘sentence’. The sentence has ‘jumps’, not ‘jumped’ so that there’s an ‘s’. If you check what you wrote you’d notice it didn’t have all the letters — wch makes the claim a bit disconcerting.

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