Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ephemeral Gladys LeBlanc

Gladys LeBlanc always loved to write. As a girl she spent hours carving her name into the sand with a stick, often racing to complete it before the tide washed it away. In her years as a teacher at Underhill Elementary she gained quite a reputation for being able to squeeze an enormous amount of writing onto the blackboard before lack of space forced her to have to erase it from the top. Her hand was very difficult to read, and the students would complain, but she’d tell them to bite their tongues. During assembly, she could often be seen with a finger held to her mouth to get the children to hush, especially during the prayer, when chattering was frowned upon.

Gladys met her husband Everett at church, where she sang in the choir, every Sunday sending praises into the air to be heard only for a moment before being lost to silence and the sound of shuffling feet. Everett’s family had come from France and all spoken French, but none of them spoke it anymore, especially Everett, who wasn’t attracted to her voice because he was born deaf.

Gladys found this to be somewhat of a relief after her last venture into amore — an affair conducted entirely in the form of letters sent to an airbase where her beau — a pen pal named James — had been stationed. She had hoped this would lead to marriage once he was sent home — it had seemed that he was full of promises in that regard, but things aren’t always what they seem, and it turned out he was quite the wordsmith, playing the field with several ladies in her small town from afar. His empty words all went up in flames in the fireplace after Ethel revealed that she too had hoped one day to become his wife. Ethel was a gossip, so Gladys stopped confiding in her.

After her marriage Gladys worked part-time as a copy-editor for the local paper, armed with a red pencil with which to strike through lines of text that did not suit the paper’s style. Never use twenty words if you can say it in ten, her supervisor always said, forever on the lookout to save column space for ads. In her spare time, she liked to do the crossword, so avoided passing the desk of the setter so she wouldn’t accidentally get a glimpse of the answers in advance.

Life with Everett was quiet, and eventually she stopped humming while she worked on learning sign language, an art that mystified her but in which her new husband was fluent. After some years she found she could keep up with what he and his deaf friends were saying, but always felt like an outsider, sure that at least some of the signs they used were not suitable for a lady’s eyes. Once, while turning the mattress, she found a gentleman’s magazine hidden there, which she threw away and never mentioned.

Everett worked for the local authority as an odd-jobs man, and thanks to a spate of vandalism spent most of his time scrubbing graffiti off lavatory doors and walls. On Saturdays he kept the scoreboard for the local baseball team — not being able to play himself due to the deafness — constantly hanging and re-hanging scores and keeping track of outs and runs on a little notepad so he wouldn’t get lost. After the game, he’d tear the page off, roll it up into a ball, and pitch it into the bin.

Gladys and Everett were blessed with a son who grew up to be a typesetter for the paper, always coming over for Sunday dinner with ink-stained hands from cleaning used type. He took Gladys to his office once, to show her how it worked — the trays of metal letters and blocks for spacing, each one having to be arranged individually and disassembled after the print run. Gladys was left speechless at the thought of having to learn where all the letters were in so many small compartments. This was before the linotype machines arrived and the great cases of alphabets and glyphs were carted off to the dump, of no use to anyone anymore. Occasionally, a child would come home clutching a handful of Baskerville and a bit of Caslon that had washed up along the banks of the river, but their mothers would invariably throw them away again.

It wasn’t until Everett retired that Gladys started doing cakes. The bakery found it had more business than it could handle, it being an aging town and having so many funerals to cater. For some reason, the Bible verses caught on — they were cheaper than getting something printed for a wreath — and served to fill the bellies of the bereaved. Gladys relished the work — sometimes two or more cakes a week — squinting over them with food coloring and a toothpick, though it was always sad to be reminded of a voice she had once spoken many of these verses with at church meetings being snuffed out.

Often, Gladys was asked to attend the wake, and thus had to eat her own words, though she was always careful to save the slice that spelled out LOVE, taking that home to Everett, wrapped in a napkin printed with the funeral home’s name. 

Easy Cake Decorating Cookbook, Mildred Brand, 1980

Also from this book: Stop Clowning Around, Frosting The SnowmanThomas Kincade: Painter of Cakes
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