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Don and Mont Blanc Fountain Pen

July 13, 2012

Right now, I am compiling and editing Don’s writings with a plan to send out his memoir, Iowa Sky, by January, 2013. As I leaf through his writings about how he and I met at the National Endowment for the Humanities, I came across his account of observing me at a National Council Meeting.

Not long after I’d spotted her, we had meetings of the National Council in the elegant chambers on the first floor. During those days, Council members, appointed by the President of the United States, came and reviewed what the staff called “Committee Books.” They were carefully prepared reports about all the applications we received for NEH grants, with recommendations from the staff about which ones were to be funded or rejected, with elaborate reasons. Then, the Council members would vote.

The staff was scattered in chairs arranged around the edges of the chamber. I was sitting, somewhat bored, doodling on a yellow legal pad with my Mont Blanc fountain pen. A few seats away from me was that Asian woman. Unlike some of the others who were chitchatting with their colleagues, she pulled out a booklet with Chinese characters and began writing something. I was fascinated. What could she possibly be doing? Then something else drew my attention. She wasn’t writing with one of those government ballpoint pens. No, she wielded a Mont Blanc fountain pen remarkably similar to mine. I was intrigued, fascinated. I must find out more about this woman, I told myself, my workplace dictum notwithstanding.

It is true we both loved Mont Blanc fountain pens. So it was easy for me to decide what to give him for our first Christmas in 1979: a big, fat, black Mont Blanc fountain pen.

Just a couple months ago, I was going through items–small and large–scattered on Don’s desk. In an ugly black bowl where Don had some of his pens, I noticed an unusually fat, black pen. “One of those promotional pens for more contribution?” I asked myself, but quickly shook my head. There was an aura to that pen. The minute I picked it up, I knew what it was–the Mont Blanc pen I had given him.

The pen needed repairing. I went to the Mont Blanc Store on Madison and 57th Street. Inside, I was directed to an impeccably dressed young African American man. I pulled out Don’s Mont Blanc pen and asked if he could fix it for me. After examining it carefully, he informed me that some parts were broken and needed replacement. “I want it fixed, whatever you need to do.” He nodded and politely told me that it would cost me $255 to fix. “So it is the price of buying a new one or even more!” said I. “No, not all. It is the very best of Mont Blanc pens. If you wanted to buy a new one like this, it would be more than $800!” At that point, a young Caucasian man joined us at the same counter. “Oh, that pen is a beauty. My father left me one like that.”

I told them that it was the pen I had given my husband long time ago. I told them that Don loved Mont Blanc fountain pens. Since his passing, I could not find it until a few days before. I repeated that I wanted to fix it no matter what it cost. I tried so hard not to cry, but before I knew it, the nice sales professional brought me a box of Kleenex. As I emerged on the street outside, I felt for one split second as if Don stood right beside me, beaming. I walked on Madison Avenue, wiping my eyes with the Kleenex. I could not care less if anyone watched me cry.


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