Rose Petals: Petal One

Rose is my favorite flower, ma fleur préférée. She calls me Papis, a name she made up from hearing me called "Papa Louis" by my son, who is her father, and his lovely wife from Paris. Papis stuck and now nearly everyone calls me Papis, which I have grown to like.

Did I tell you that Rose is shy?—Or was!

The first time I visited, she kept her distance and her father between us as a kind of precaution. If I were at one end of the table, she was at the other. Or if I were standing, she stayed on the other side of her father, sneaking an occasional look at me from around his leg. I felt like I was being observed by some forest creature spying out from behind a tree. She looked curious but dubious.

But on my third visit something changed and we really connected for the first time. It was like this: I was sitting on the living-room couch with her baby brother in a crib on the floor nearby. Rose was safely out in the kitchen with mom and dad.

Suddenly she came out of the kitchen, walked in a tight little circle as she often does before making up her mind about something, then came straight up to me. I saw the biggest forced smile I have ever seen in my life. It said, "Let's be friends." We were, instantly. I guess since I had not tried to eat her baby brother, she thought I was safe. Her mother told me later that she thought I was some kind of important person but did not know what kind. She was also confused that I was called "Papa Louis." Did that mean she had two papas? No, her mother told her. I was papa's papa, or papa de papa. How amazing! She had no idea papa also had a papa. My son went from being the source of all life on earth to being a link in the chain, but that did not seem to bother her.

And since we were friends now—and I a trusted one, since I had not harmed little brother—she began to search my pockets. She found keys, coins, paper money, and a small package of tissues, which are so useful when traveling in countries where toilet paper in restrooms is not the rule. One by one, she began to pull tissues out of the package and tear them up. The good Papis offered no objections, as papa or maman might have. We made a little pile of the torn pieces and all was well.

Then she spotted Papis'  pens—two beautiful black and silver fountain pens—gāng​bǐ—that I had bought in Shanghai, the center of pen production in China. The little arm stretched out, the small hand opened, then clamped down. She soon had both pens in her hand.

Now let me explain something here. If you don't know about fountain pens, and few do these days, they are delicate. The general rule is this: Don't loan your pen out—ever! The two in Rose's hand came in beautiful hand-carved boxes in which they rested in grooves on velvet padding like royalty, along with a small but beautiful brochure, both in Chinese and English. The advice in the brochure—almost a command—is to never loan this pen to anyone. The tines—that's where the nib splits near the tip—are calibrated for perfect alignment, and dropping a pen on the floor will almost always cause misalignment; the ink will no longer flow smoothly and the tines will scratch unpleasantly on the paper when you write. Writing, which was once a pleasure and a joy, now becomes a vexation.

Of course pen manufactures recognize that refusing to loan out your pen may place you in an awkward situation, so they make this recommendation: Always carry a loaner in your pocket, an old Parker ballpoint or some other pen you don't care much about; then, when someone asks to borrow your pen, you hand over the loaner.

But I do think they ought to make one exception to the rule—your granddaughter—and offer some tips for ensuring the well being of the pen while she is in possession of it, such as keeping your hands—both of them!—below the pen at all times. This can be done without awkwardness with your granddaughter but not of course with your boss or a first date.

And guess what? On my very next visit Rose got her own pen—an orange ballpoint with a dog on the side of the cap and a bone on top. It didn't stop her from going for mine—these Chinese pens have a magical power of attraction!—but it cut down on the struggle. And I can always slow her down a little by saying, "Rose, you have your own pen now."

Does this mean she is going to be a writer? She is only two, so I don't know. However, her father is a writer; her mother is a writer-translator; her grandfather flatters himself that he is one; and at least one of her grandmothers is a writer. So it is possible. It's in the blood, and for at least awhile she may not even realize that there are other professions.

I sent her a card the other day when I was out of town; I wanted to keep in touch. Her mom said she was very excited, got her doggy pen out, and tried to write me back. But of course there was a problem. She does not know the alphabet yet. Finally she copied some of my letters and then asked her mom what she had written. Her kind and lovely mother told her, "I love Papis."

"Qui, maman. J'aime Papis."

See also Rose Petals: Petal Two and Rose Petals: Petal Three
By Louis Martin