Reprinted from C·y·b·e·r·scribes: The Online Newsgroup for Calligraphers Worldwide

June 18, 1999

With Calligraphy, You’re Never Too Old to Start
by Linda Lanza

You won’t find her handwork in any of the calligraphy books or guild journals. She never had an exhibit, didn’t submit slides of her work when calls for entries went out. An Audubon Society magnet held my newspaper ad for “Calligraphy” on her refrigerator for over a year before she swallowed hard and called me one February morning ten years ago.

She told me she was 69 years old and had always wanted to learn calligraphy. I could hear her voice tremble as she asked me, “Am I too old to start?” I invited her to come by and we would talk about it. We made an appointment.

In a few days a car pulled into the driveway and a little gnome alighted. A tiny, Yoda-looking woman came to my door, and I knew my life would change somehow for the better by our meeting. I brought her into my studio where we talked about what she would like to do.

I could see by her dress and manner that she had an eye for color, texture, pattern. I learned she was working as a floral designer, this creative employment after a long list of clerical jobs that spanned forty years of raising four children on her own after her husband left them alone and penniless. Now that her family was grown and on their own, she was looking for avenues of expression that had previously been unavailable to her. After an hour of getting acquainted we had agreed on a plan. And for the next six years she came once a week for calligraphy lessons.

She had a standing appointment, and it didn’t matter if it was pouring down rain or the streets were paved with ice. Erna was religious about it. She came to the studio no matter what, and we did church for an hour and a half. She knew just where to set the lever to adjust the height of my chair. I’d prop the phone book under her feet, so she could work comfortably at my table. We ordered paper together and I’d take down her sheets to manageable sizes for her and pack them in the ribbon-handled carrying case she made out of two half sheets of lavender-colored matte board joined with linen tape.

She learned from me Foundational, Italic, Blackletter, Uncial, Cursive Uncial, and Lombardic Versals. I learned from her patience, fortitude, and some of what it takes to forbear and persevere in the face of overwhelming odds. She learned to work with gouache, watercolor, bleach, masking fluid, embossing, and rubber stamps. I learned the superficiality of appearances and the reaffirmation that life’s a long story “full of adventure, full of long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit.”

One three-month project was “The Fireman’s Prayer” she did for her son when he was a volunteer firemen. In SignCraft magazine she had seen the rendering on glass John Stevens had done of a quote about Prometheus and decided that was the text she would use. Arthritis made the going slow, and that was just fine with her. She liked that calligraphy could be a slow, meditative process. Another framed piece was a watercolor illustration of trees combined with Joyce Kilmer’s poem. She lived and worked near New Brunswick, New Jersey where he is famous, and she had always loved his poem. Every year she made her own Christmas cards full of invention and energy and sealed with her signature butterfly.

She had converted a spare room in her home to house her ever-expanding collection of calligra-gear, calling me every so often to ask my opinion or advice about a purchase she was considering — this table, this lamp, these nibs, this ink, this book. On one wall hung a painting she did as part of her calendar series inspired by the work of Robert Boyajian — a huge floppy abstract flower in watercolors with a calendar for May to celebrate her birthday. I had to talk her into that one. She was so self-effacing, and the most mule-headed person I ever had the pleasure to meet.

One July we started on a project she had in mind for Christmas presents. Over the next six months she developed a portfolio of sixteen family recipe cards rendered in every imaginable letterstyle, with and without illustrations, that she then had copied in a limited edition and presented to everyone close to her. Mine is on a shelf in my kitchen. The cover says, “A Culinary Gift For You”. Inside among instructions for “Raspberry Salad”, “Chocolate Easter Eggs”, “Classic Chicken Divan”, “Enchiladas”, “Carrot Cake”, and “Blueberry Muffins” is a card entitled “A Favorite Recipe”. It goes like this:

Take a cup of kindness
mix it well with love,
Add a lot of patience
and faith in God above
Sprinkle very generously
with joy and thanks and cheer
and you’ll have lots of ‘Angel food’
to feast on all the year.

In early May Erna went to Birmingham for her son’s wedding. I spoke with her afterwards and she sounded worn out. I chalked it up to all the festivities and the hardship of travel. Arthritis had become very painful and physically limiting. She was determined to attend my college graduation the middle of the month. She had been a steady cheerleader through many of my years of catch-as-catch-can classes. She was very weak that night and ate very little at dinner. After persistent rebuffs to inquiries, she asked to be taken home before the rest of us went to the ceremony.

Three days later her son took her to the hospital. She had severe pneumonia and a kidney infection. She rallied and rallied. I visited and recited poems to her...Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Yeats. One Sunday afternoon I read to her from Gift From The Sea until she fell asleep. Tuesday evening when I returned to visit she asked me why I stopped reading. She asked me to read more, so I did. But she was very tired.

Erna died a couple days later. She left a legacy embodied in calligraphy for her friends and family to enjoy and remember the grace, kindness, and creative spirit of a beautiful tribal elder who gave so much to everyone she came in contact with simply by being herself. I offer these lines from C. P. Cavafy to honor her safe passage to eternal peace:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way.

If you or someone you know has wanted to learn calligraphy but has thought it is too late to start, I hope you find some inspiration in Erna’s story. Someone said to me once, “Do you know how old I’ll be before I learn calligraphy?” I smiled and replied, “The same age you’ll be if you don’t.” Calligraphy can bring you a lifetime of creative enjoyment starting with the moment you begin, right where you are.

Contact Linda Lanza at: scribe(at)

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