Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pater: handwriting...

Pater: handwriting...  At right, my dad is standing under a large piece of machinery called a “lumber load mover”, inside the Collins Pine Museum in Chester, California, on our trip to Mount Lassen National Park in June 2007.  This is a private museum, run by a sawmill company – not the sort of place you'd think would attract my dad.  But when he ran into a forestry botanist during our visit, we ended up spending several hours there, mostly talking about the patterns of conifer distribution in the area, and especially where we could find large, old-growth cedar specimens.  This made my dad's day, which was shortly made even better when we followed it up with a big bowl of wor wonton mein soup!

I'm starting to run low on topics for these posts about my dad, so this will be the last of the daily posts.  I'll keep writing them, but a bit less frequently.  Any friends and family with memories they'd like to see written up – please remind me of them!

My dad made lots of notes while in the field, or at his customer's locations.  He generally preferred to type his notes up, usually on the evening of the day he made them, or upon return from a trip.  This was both because his handwritten notes were really more just reminders of something he wanted to elaborate on later, and also because his writing wasn't particularly legible – even to himself, after the fact. These are also habits of mine, though these days I'm more likely to take my rough, “reminder notes” on a mobile phone or by typing them into a plain text file.

Ten years or so ago, I started collecting old records and photographs from my family's past.  The vast majority of the trove I've put together came from the effects of my uncle Donald Dilatush (my dad's brother).  These included quite a few documents and photos from his parents, Grace and Earle Dilatush (my grandparents).  Amongst these collections were just a few letters and postcards written by my dad during his WWII Army Air Force days – either he didn't write home very much, or his letters didn't get saved.  The content of these was entirely unremarkable, but the first one of these that I saw (a postcard sent from Scott Army Base in Illinois) was a real shocker – because the handwriting on it looked exactly like my own.

This discovery prompted a long evening's conversation on one of the trips I took with my dad, and some informal “tests” we made to try to verify my discovery and to try to understand how it could be.  Neither of us used conventional cursive handwriting, though both of us learned cursive handwriting in school.  Instead, we both hand printed our letters – and both of us freely mixed upper and lower case letters (and we both used “small caps” style to distinguish upper and lower case letters when printing them all in upper case style).  We both wrote small letters, small enough that we were used to getting comments about how tiny our writing was.  Neither of us could remember ever being taught how to print.  And of course, my dad went to school in the '20s and 30's, 30 years before me – with different schools, different curricula, and different teachers.

Yet our hand printing was undeniably strikingly similar.  Both of us were surprised at just how very similar our styles were – so similar, in fact, that both of us would instantly identify the other's writing as our own.  This is what shocked me when I saw that postcard from my dad – for it looked as though I had written a postcard in the '40s, before I was even a gleam in my dad's eye.  My dad's reaction to seeing my writing was very similar – he found it quite disconcerting to see someone else duplicate his writing so precisely.  I suppose we all think our writing style is something very personal, something unique to ourselves – like our face, or our voice.

The only explanation I could think of for our similar handwriting was that there was, somehow, a genetic component to handwriting style.  Not a direct gene for handwriting style, but perhaps genes for things that affected handwriting style.  I did a bit of research on the subject, not really expecting to find anything.  To my surprise, it turns out that handwriting style similarities amongst family members was noted as long ago as Roman times (and who knows – maybe even earlier).  It was the subject of some not-so-rigorous scientific inquiry in the early part of the 20th century. I even found a book on handwriting analysis that contains a chapter on familial resemblances, complete with references to more modern (and more formal) scientific studies.  The conclusion: there is a genetic component to handwriting style – and it appears most often between family members whose handwriting styles were “natural”, as opposed being to the result of training.  That's exactly the case with my dad and I, with our habit of printing rather than using cursive writing.

The exact genetic mechanism hasn't been worked out, but the speculation is along the same lines I mentioned earlier: heritable traits that affect handwriting.  Things like bone structure, joint conformation, and nervous system performance have all been mooted as possibilities, but as far as I know none of these have been directly linked.  I think nobody really knows what the genetic mechanism behind handwriting similarity is.  The modern books on the subject are still in copyright, and I can't post them here – but some of the older ones are available online.  Three examples: here, here, and here.

If you stood my dad and I next to each other, I don't think you'd have the slightest suspicion that we were related.  On the other hand, people constantly notice the resemblance between my mom and I.  In a family as irreverent as ours, this has been the source of a considerable amount of teasing over the years :)  But my handwriting provides a piece of slightly subtler evidence of my paternity, and it's one that is to me even more striking – and unexpected – than facial resemblance.  Somehow it makes me happy now, that every time I write something by hand, what shows up on the paper looks like something my dad wrote...

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