The Fading Power of Handwriting: My Dad and Journaling in Northern Michigan


D-Day was just three months away, but my dad’s Uncle Walt was instead worrying about the folks back home, specifically his sister Laura and her husband.

Walter Kelly to Leon and Laura Walsh, February 1944

Walter Kelly to Leon and Laura Walsh, February 1944

I didn’t know my grandparents had a rocky marriage, or that they were even separated, until I’d read this folded letter in my grandma’s shoebox.

Sixty years later,  I attended the funeral of Walt and Laura’s youngest brother Jerry in Florida, I had a chance to give the letter to Walt’s children, whom I had never met.   Walt had died thirty-four years earlier and they had never seen their father’s handwriting from a young hand–smooth, and confident.  They had only known their father’s shakey hand.

Walter Kelly

Walter Kelly

When they had held the letter and seen the writing, the tears began.

The afternoon of my own father’s death sixteen years ago this Thursday–before I could accept that he had left me completely, I needed to sense him alive again.  From his clothing still hanging in the closet I was able to inhale some last living part of him.  It did more than the photographs we were to assemble for the collage at the funeral home.

And after the funeral, we all drove to my parents’ property in northern Michigan.  After ten summers, the place was suddenly haunted by difficult, ordinary scenes I knew I had to face.

The firepit

The firepit

The suddenly nostalgic leaves we had to rake

Raking (or mowing) the leaves

The morning view from the window on what my dad called, "The diamond necklace" reflecting on the water.

The morning view from the window on what my dad called, “The diamond necklace” reflecting on the water.

North Beach on Lake Charlevoix, frozen or thawed, with my dad's buddy Rick Olshove

North Beach on Lake Charlevoix, frozen or thawed, with my dad’s buddy Rick Olshove

One by one, these places were addressed head-on by all of us that weekend and after a few years they became less painful as the sharp edges wore down into fond nostalgia.

But I knew the toughest place I needed to go was was the first in our series of journals in which we (or our poor guests) grudgingly chronicle the events of the visit.


I had to flip back for nearly a year.  My dad was usually packing the car or putting away things outside when somebody else would quickly jot down the happenings.  But I finally found his familiar hand–and I can still feel that tightening of my chest when I first saw it–an entry so ordinary I probably never read it.


There was his great mix of cursive, capitals and puns. My son, now in his senior year and driving himself to school, was just sixteen months old–my daughter still on her way.  Murphy the dog was only six at the time. 

I had to move my hand across the page, knowing that my dad had done the same.  Perhaps the sense of touch, after smell, has the next longest memory.

I then flipped forward in the journal to discover when his last trip up had been, less than three weeks before the accident, as my sister Maureen describes…


Since that journal-hunt, I’ve felt an obligation to chronicle even the minor events, not knowing what will be major events later–even if it is homemade soup or watching football with Rick–who would also pass suddenly seven years later.

My dad was introduced to golf by Rick and his family at a great local Boyne City course…


And if there’s ever a large chunk of grass to invoke memories for me, it’s this place.  Every hole brings back Rick, Rick’s dad “Oley” or my dad–whether it was the closest I’ve ever been to a hole-in-one, or an incredibly bad tee shot that ricocheted off a tree and returned closer to my tee than the almost-hole-in-one.  I can still hear Rick and my dad chuckling about that shot for the next five years, every time we got to Number Five.

But since Ye Nyne was across the ferry, it was always good to make reservations so you didn’t waste the fare.  And in this Rolodex card we still keep, my memories of the course begin with his writing…


The cottage is full of objects that I’d probably not keep if it weren’t for my dad’s writing.  I’m not sure the last time we popped these tapes in the machine (if that still works)…


There, beside my mom’s familiar script for Northern Exposure, are three films shoved onto one two-hour tape at the grainy XLP setting.


Or if you look in the closet of the spare room, not only will you find terrible wallpaper and a rusty fusebox, you’ll also see some lovely yellowed masking tape.


And since the renovation in 2000, the labeling is certainly not accurate.


Jim Walsh wasn’t the most organized handyman.  Generally, his toolbox was a butter knife, which we’d find rusty in the grass after the spring thaw–left over from a failed lawnmower tuneup.  So I know he’d be happy I kept this bit of categorization–current or not (pun intended, Dad).


For twenty-five years before my parents bought the place in 1988, we rented a cottage just down the road from Rick’s family cottage in Ironton.  One summer, we all picked up art supplies and my dad did some sketches from the front porch.  The Christmas before he died, I surprised (and embarrassed him, I suspect) by finally framing some of his pastel works.

And, like those miscellaneous bits and pieces in the journal, what I see first before the bait house, is instead…


…with that fun little side of Jim that made the “B” and the “H” and the flair underneath–all capturing a lazy vacation day of “PIBE, baby, PIBE,” as he liked to say:  “Play It By Ear.”

Jim, Up North and a glass of Olives

Jim, Up North and a glass of olives

If it weren’t for that journal, like their cell phone numbers, I probably wouldn’t know my own kids’ handwriting.  With so many better technological options than getting a hand-cramp from a pen, that journal is a wonderful inconvenience as we too rush to pack the car and hurry home on a Sunday to some forgettable important Monday.

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About Kevin Walsh

Kevin began in 2013 as an experiment that was as simple as "What's a blog?" and ended up becoming a forum for fellow writers. He's been a high school teacher for 28 years and worked as an administrator and instructor in colleges for 10 years since then. Contact him at: He is also the producer of the web-series and blog, www.DiggingDetroit, founder and producer for MMD Productions at which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His high school media production text, "Video Direct," has been used in 40 states--and he occasionally still sells a few. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two kids Aidan and Abby who have all graciously allowed him to write about them on occasion.

11 Responses to The Fading Power of Handwriting: My Dad and Journaling in Northern Michigan

  1. Dick Rockwell says:

    Wish I’d saved more of my folks’ letters; their handwriting really illustrated their personalities and ways of speaking. My mom’s notes were always full of dashes and dots, and she always was asking about others not focused on herself. My dad had perfect penmanship, textbook quality. He used to say that he was born a “left hander” but his parents tied up that hand and forced him to learn as a “righty.” Thanks to this technique he claimed that he was ambidextrous, in fact, in school he could write on the chalkboard in Latin with his left hand while translating with his right. Still his handwriting was elegant, whether signing checks or writing out birthday cards. In a former life, he must have been a cleric who copied bibles.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      That elegant penmanship is definitely a lost art, isn’t it Dick? Once in a while you bump into it still and it looks like you’ve just run across a copy of the Constitution! (I guess when people had more time or devoted more time to the art of the written word!)

  2. John says:

    Hey kevin, Really great post!! Great perceptions. I remember when you all went off to the cottage but it never occurred to me that there would be so many reminders there in such simple things. Something that happens to us all but often goes unnoticed. Thanks for bringing to light such an important part of our lives and legacy.

    All my love, Uncle John

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks for the kind words, John. I always find it interesting what unlocks drawers of our memory’s file-cabinet. (You’d swear that you’d never forget something, so why write it down–then later on you’re reading something and say, “I have no recollection of this at all!” Funny what stays and what doesn’t!

  3. Love your family’s journal entry tradition. That stuff matters.

    Am I your 20,000th visitor to the site? Congrats on that!! (-:

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks, Laura! You may very well have been #20,000. If not, you were darn close! (I’ve got to figure out how to figure that out!) Thanks again for all of your invaluable advice on getting this blog rolling!

  4. Katie says:

    Beautiful entry, Kevin. Mom actually mailed me the pages that we didn’t fill in during our sumer of 2012 trip. They sat on my desk for a year, and then the night before our drive this summer, I filled them in, knowing that the journal is sacred. And this year, I made sure to write my journal entry the night before we departed 🙂

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      It’s funny, isn’t it Katie, how it’s a hassle when you’re cleaning and packing, but so many things drop out of our memories if we don’t take those few minutes to jot them down? It’s good that you were able to document things so well a year later!

      • Katie says:

        Thanks to technology! I subscribe to an online diary (which fortunately I actually did use during the trip) and took so many photos with my iPhone, which of course tracks the dates. I was not only able to recreate every activity, but to plan better for this year’s trip. A perfect marriage of old and new journals.

  5. K Thomas says:

    Beautiful. Thanks Kevin. Karen