Perfect Penmanship

Download / By Todd Quackenbush

July, 1940

Hilly loved the vase the moment she saw it.  A flea-bitten yet no less visually arresting 1920’s porcelain study of contrasts, geometrically rigid in form with its stark horizontal lines, yet softly glazed the color of  a sun-ripened plum.  Purchased that afternoon from an appropriately quaint second-hand shop, two streets, yet worlds away from the fashionable brownstone where she resided as Mrs. Gerald L. Walker, she’d brought the vase home to Gerald’s raised eyebrow reception and imperious verdict of “Honestly, Hilly.  How much did you spend on that?

Removing her gloves (white-cotton correct, for summer) Hilly wrapped her treasure in a vibrantly bohemian scarf (another thrift store purchase) and squirreled the purple pottery reflection of herself safely within the satiny blue sanctuary of her suitcase.  Set near the front of her closet, where she could readily see it, her suitcase served as a reminder, of sorts, that a world of possibilities, however out of reach, was waiting for her.      


November, 1980

They really did seem to crawl out from the woodwork.  Relatives of every imaginable degree, gathered in the now tenantless apartment to plunder the spoils of Gerald and Hilly’s life together.  The mint condition complete set of rose patterned Syracuse china.  A rare and expensive 1930’s Olivewood art deco coffee table.  Lalique crystal decanters-two of those.  Sticky notes bearing hastily scrawled names were attached  on a “first come, first served” basis. 

By early evening, the swarm had come and gone, leaving only crumbs.  In the bedroom closet, Hilly’s suitcase was still waiting.  

December 1980

As the girl unwrapped the vase, discovered inside a musty old suitcase left behind by the previous inhabitants, her breath caught in her chest. She loved it. And then, as the realization of what else she had found inside the suitcase set in-a ribbon-bound sheaf of onion skin paper, immaculate handwriting filling every sheet-she sensed she had struck gold.


The vase, now filled with a dozen freshly sharpened number two pencils, shares space on a well-used vintage desk, right next to a classic black Underwood typewriter.  Lounging comfortably in the embrace of a once grand Victorian sofa, the young woman starts to read onion skin pages, and the story of  Hilly-the real Hilly, comes to life.

A ghost, unseen, finds peace.  And moves on.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.


12 thoughts on “Perfect Penmanship

  1. Such beautiful imagery here, the description of the vase, and the time. Women were never truly free back then, to explore all those possibilities. But they could dream.

    • Tina-thank you so much. Your comment really captured the essence of what I wanted to say about Hilly, and I am grateful for that:) Your thoughts mean a lot to me!

    • Thanks Kelly! What a cool vintage find for your daughter! I wonder about the past lives of objects I acquire too. The age old wish “if only they could talk…” We just have to do the talking for them:) I appreciate you reading this!

  2. Valerie, there is no one better to do the talking for the characters and objects you bring to life…I got such a sense of Hilly in this short piece. The closing line is especially beautiful. Great work, my friend!

  3. I always love your writing, but this particularly resonated. There’s something magical about a buried treasure, found by someone who truly appreciates it and not simply people looking for what *they* deem valuable. Lovely.

  4. Oh, it’s a perfect circle, a complete story and it’s as vibrant as the scarf, as beautiful as the vase.

    Oh Hilly your story is a good one, a tale of words.

    Val, you’re a beautiful writer. Always.

  5. I still remember the first piece of yours I read, and how struck I was by your ability to stitch together quirky, gentle humor, vintage detail, and nostalgia and make it compelling and often heartbreaking. This one goes right back to the heart of what I think of when I think of you and your writing.

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