It never occurred to me to discuss the door jamb. It never occurred to me to suggest to the painter—hired for a job I was more used to doing myself, “freshening up” the trim in the kitchen and half bath more in the kitchen than off it—that he should, of course, not repaint that part of the door jamb. This was totally my fault. I know that now. 

As it was, in one awful moment, delivered by a quick and passing glance at the gleaming doorway, both the reality of my error and the gravity of its consequences were laid bare. All of the pencil marks were gone. The annotated history of my people—my little people, my this-much-taller-than-last-year people, my people on their birthdays and on the Fourth of July and on the first day of school, my people on days where they just looked so much taller all of a sudden that we had to check—let’s just see, go stand up against the wall and I’ll get a pencil—had been painted over. Erased.

We had started making the marks right after we bought the house, when we were mostly just lovers playing house, not yet the bona fide family of six we had become. Each line had borne initials and a date which, for any number of reasons, might have called for an immediate recording of how much the child had grown. The first-child lines lead the way up the wall, the younger brother’s in dogged, if ultimately fruitless, pursuit. The daunting distance for the tiny toddler girls, so far behind their brothers, so frustratingly close to the floor. The widespread growth during adolescence which created such wide, blank spaces between them, and us, that we worried they might separate us forever. Sometimes the differences between lines was significant; sometimes, even though a lot of time had passed, not much seemed to have happened. Taken together, the dozens and dozens of marks made a timeline that felt like a kind of permanent record, telling the story of our family, documenting our growth.

After dinner, my husband shined a worklight on the thin coat of offending paint and taped a long piece of paper next to it. He worked for hours, reconstructing and transferring as many lines as he could. adding names and dates that seemed like they could be right, though I think he made a lot of them up. “Here, here it is!” he said convincingly when it was all done, as if demonstrating object permanence to a child. “See? It isn’t really gone!” But I still felt the loss. We saved the paper, and even moved it to the new house, but I don’t know what happened to it after that. 

What do people do? Do they keep the pencil marks forever? Do they never clean, or paint, or move, or manage to lose the big paper they thought might somehow substitute for the complete recorded and annotated history of their little people? How do they archive the timeline, the permanent record that is our cave-drawing and our fossil, that says that we were here, that our people were here, on this day and on so many other, ordinary days, too? That promised that no matter how much alike the long days were, or how much the same the kid looked when you saw him every single day, we were all making some kind of silent, measurable progress. That we were doing something important, reaching milestones, even though sometimes, even though a lot of time had gone by, it didn’t look seem like much had happened. 

I don’t know. I just know that one day, you look up and realize in one glance that both the pencil marks and the little heads they measured are gone. And then you might wonder how the world will ever know—and how even you can be really sure—that you really were there, all those days when it seemed like nothing was happening. And that there is no discrete timeline, no permanent record, no Annotated History of Your People that might be an AP class one day, though you think there should be, so that other people can learn about this most wonderful time, this important civilization that was, to you, the most important group of people in human history.

There will be, in the end, only memories of cowlicks and chubby feet and birthdays and days in which you marveled that the kid before you could look so much bigger than he did the day before. And the memories of marks which once seemed like they would last forever but which were, after all, only written in pencil.

Beth Thompson

Beth Thompson writes from her not-quite-empty nest in an old farmhouse in Maryland. When she is not writing, she can be found knitting, fielding texts from her three grown up children, and lazily reminding her youngest daughter that this is not her first rodeo. Find her on her blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.