Whalebones and Sermons

June 26th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Some skills we are wise not to advertise. One of mine is paper folding and envelope stuffing, which often come in a pair.

I recalled my childhood. While not Dickensian, the hours preparing Red Cross mailings were on task.  This morning my memories transported me as I prepared an order of service for this Sunday. This time it was only 45 sets.

Playing Preacher

It is amateur hour, quite literally at First Parish in Brookline. I am in a set of sparsely attended summer services. Ordained ministers, perhaps largely so congregants don’t forget them, preach a few of these June through August. Most services are by one-shot pretend ministers. Perhaps like every cab driver, business executive and others, we believe we have at least one book and one sermon in us.

I am somewhat anal retentive. Coupled with nearly two decades as a technical writer, I have the tool (FrameMaker)  and the procedural oreintation for an order of service. But it is to my mother, Wanda, that I owe my efficiency at creasing paper and assembling such packages.

There’s no whalebone paper creaser here, but I learned such clerical skills using them.

I came after the days of buggy whip handles and corset stays in common use. Yet, I grew up when whales and other high-intelligence mammals were fair game — literally. Today, it is illegal to import or export whale parts, although interstate trade and selling antique objects is permissible.

From centuries ago, people knew how good whalebone was for creasing paper. Don’t think a  basketball or larger sized vertebra. Whalebone is not whale bone, rather the osteoid filter blades in the mouth of a baleen whale. In fact, whalebone is the baleen.

It is much denser and ivory-like than a more porous bone. Even without smoothing and carving, whalebone has soft edges. A piece about the size of a letter opener presses down paper, making a crisp edge without catching or tearing.  You can also use one a long time without getting a cramp or blister. The modern plastic versions imitate the whalebone proportions and curved edges.

Lifelong Skills

Because volunteer availability is often unpredictable, my sister and I were unquestioning volunteers in our mother’s Red Cross chapters from primary school. In part, she instilled a worth ethic in us, as well as the awareness that volunteering  should be part of everyone’s obligation to neighbors and other humans around.

(I confess that we did the same to her many times. After the years we lived in Japan, she would end up in front of our of our classes in kimono and obi, holding up cultural objects and lecturing.)

Back to the not-so-thrilling days of mimeograph machines and German Gestetner copiers that reeked of ammonia… We sat and joked and folded and stuffed. Mailings by the many hundreds were possible and passable with good company and a couple of whalebones.

We saw that process in the summers at my grandparents’ backyard as well. My grandmother, Mable, played a little game with her husband a few times a summer. She’d say, “Bill I need a few Lima beans.”  Another time, she’d say the same about tomatoes, green beans, peaches and more. Granddad would go to his gardens or the nearby orchards and arrive with two or more bushels of the stuff.

Then the neighbors and kids in our immediate family would show. Under the wide maple in the yard, we take chairs or picnic benches and bend to work. Back when string beans had strings, we’d pull those and chop the beans. We’d press our thumbs into pea or Lima pods until they popped and we’d push the beans out with our thumbnails. Mable was off to canning and everyone got a share as she stocked the whole basement, floor to ceiling with jars and her deep freeze with bags.

Today, I only had 45 orders of service. It wasn’t worth gathering a community. The work would be complete before the second story finished.  Pity. There’s much learn and enjoy in communal tasks.

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