A Holiday Pencil Story

For me, Christmas always means one thing: going to my grandparents’ house to be with the family, have a big breakfast, and open presents. I never had the traditional “come downstairs in your pajamas and see what Santa brought” Christmas, because it was always “Get up, get dressed, we’re going to your Grandma’s house!” screams from my parents trying to get me out of bed. But I don’t mind it, because I would doubt that anyone actually has a “traditional” Christmas. What even is that? I’ve just been reading a book about advertising and branding that explains how the Santa Claus concept as we know it today was created by Coca Cola in the 30’s…ever wonder why his suit is Coke Red? That book is Branding: In Five and A Half Steps by Michael Johnson. I just got it for an early Christmas gift from the lady and it's excellent for designers.

Anyway, any time I think about my Grandpa, I think of the little pencil cups he has all over the house. One on the kitchen table, one on the table by his recliner, one in the basement family room, and even one in the bathroom, on top of the toilet. Not just one pencil, mind you, a whole cup, with about 5-6 pencils in it. They sit in a little old 7-Up wax paper cup from his time working for a paper goods manufacturer. If retro cups ever got the revival that old pencils got, I’d be set…they have boxes of old wax paper cups in their basement.

I haven’t really even talked to my grandpa about his pencil using habits. He’s an old military man, a career Army Sergeant that spent time in Korea, Germany, Hawaii (my dad was born there before it was a state) and many bases all over the US. He’s been in war and he’s a quiet, solemn man, which is not to say he’s not a happy man. He’s in his mid 80s and still strong as a bull, and besides a few woodworking accidents in which fingers were lost, a healthy man who has stayed out of the hospital for the most part.

For him, a pencil is a tool. He marks his cuts for woodworking projects, draws his plans, fills out crossword puzzles, makes his shopping lists…he uses his pencils as something to help him, not as a hobby that owns him, as so many of us do. I could learn a lot from him in that respect.

In a roundabout way, his use of pencils fed my stationery interest. As a little kid, I wanted to be like him. I remember setting up a little pencil pot on my desk, filling it with newly sharpened pencils and a few ink pens. He always had little scissors in his, so I made sure to put little scissors in mine. I always had plenty of pencils from Shelbyville, TN, which I remember only because I’m from Shelbyville IL, and it was always fascinating to me that there was another town called the same as mine in a different state. Back then there was more than Musgrave, so I couldn’t say what brand they were…but I remember Shelbyville.

I always check the pencil pots for anything old and exciting when I visit them. He uses pencils often, but I’m not sure he knows where they’ve come from. Some are newer cheap-o junk pencils. Some are older pencils that I’ve never seen before, cheap yellow pencils, but brands I don’t recognize that he got from god-knows-where. Then there are the old pencil stubs. Many of his pencils are nearing the Steinbeck Stage and the erasers are all used up. Being a good Depression-era man that he is, he doesn’t throw them away, just starts up another pencil and keeps the old one in the cup.

My dream would be to dig around and find some old Blackwings in his house, a stash of boxes, stacked as high as the wax paper cups. But I haven’t even found one. I haven’t even found any old Eberhard Faber pencils at all. Or anything rare. Which is a testament to the man who worked hard his whole life and collected something even better: the memories he’s recorded, the things he’s built in his wood shop, the smiles of everyone who has received one of those items. And our family. His most useful tool in that project was his hard work, love, and support he’s given us through the years.

Happy Holidays!