Of Fonts, and Fate, and Marcel’s Letters
February 12, 2018 § 4 Comments
By Heidi Fettig Parton
In 2002, Carolyn Porter, a graphic artist by trade, was shopping in the picturesque downtown of historic Stillwater in Minnesota. Nestled on the banks of the St. Croix River, Stillwater is a place where antique and up-cycled-vintage stores abound. It was at one of these stores where Porter discovered a bundle of vintage letters and postcards. She didn’t know it then, but these letters would alter the course of her life.
Back when Porter purchased the letters, she wasn’t thinking about writing a book. Instead, her trained eye recognized that Marcel’s beautiful handwriting was both aesthetically and numerically complete enough to serve as a model for a font design. Porter had never before designed a font, but she was eager to try her hand at this creative use of her design skills.
Porter purchased the letters and immediately began the work of designing a font during the stolen weekends and evenings not devoted to her clients’ projects. Porter worked off scans of the letters and kept the originals pressed flat between the pages of a book she put away in her closet, not to be looked at again until 2011, when Porter found herself struggling to get a particularly difficult letter right. That’s when Porter pulled out the original letters for inspiration. In doing so, she was reminded of their beauty.
“I’d been looking at them in black and white for so many years,” Porter told me, “I’d forgotten the stripes in the background and the beautiful buttery yellow color of the paper and how some of the ink was denim blue. I’d forgotten about the ‘letters’ themselves as physical objects because I’d been looking at the words only as characters in an alphabet.”
At that point, nine years after she’d first purchased the bundle of letters, Porter still only knew that the letters had been written by someone named Marcel and that they’d been postmarked, “Berlin, Germany.” Porter decided—on a whim—to have one of the letters translated. It was like opening a Pandora’s box.
Marcel, it turned out, was a man who had written a disarmingly affectionate letter to his three young daughters. He’d asked one daughter if she’d fetched the milk for her mother while she was away in Paris, he’d cautioned another not to pick blossoms from the trees, but to pick violets in the woods, and he’d asked the smallest daughter if she was still sucking her thumb. This was not the letter Porter had expected. She began to wonder why Marcel had been in Berlin.
Porter decided, at some expense, to have the other letters translated into English. The other letters were written to Marcel’s wife, although some included affectionate paragraphs to his daughters. Porter, however, still didn’t know why Marcel was in Berlin. An inquisitive person, she began looking for answers. Each discovery seemed to lead to another; the deeper Porter plowed, the more she felt a sense of responsibility for a story that seems to have found her.
Meanwhile, Porter continued her work on the font and in 2014, completed the design of the beautiful script font, “Marcel,” now licensed through a firm called P22. About a year after that completion, Porter was walking through a bookstore and spied her font—in the wild—on the cover of Anna Quindlen’s book, Miller’s Valley. When asked if she had any doubt whether the font was Marcel, Porter told me, “No. It’s like seeing your own child. I know every nook and cranny of those letters.”
Porter never set out to be a writer, but in 2017, Porter followed up her awarding winning font design by publishing the book, Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate. In Marcel’s Letters, recently nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, Porter tells both the story of her incredible search and, ultimately, the story she would piece together about Marcel’s past. The quest led Porter on a transnational journey, looking for answers. Those answers unfold gradually, layered throughout this book in a way that mirrors Porter’s own work to excavate the man behind these beautiful letters.
When Porter and I met for brunch to discuss her experience writing Marcel’s Letters. Porter brought along a few photos. One showed Marcel and his wife on their wedding day. Marcel’s bride was dressed in black because the couple was mourning Marcel’s mother’s death. In spite of the black dress, this photo shows a hopeful young couple, ignorant of the trials that stood before them.
Before setting the photo on the table for me to see, Porter held it to her chest and ran her hand across it a few times, as if smoothing out imaginary creases. Porter’s reverence for this photo was obvious. I could see something akin to love in Porter’s eyes, like the love shining in the eyes of a mother, proudly showing off a photo of her child. Porter’s eyes remained on the photo a few moments before she looked up to take in my reaction to seeing this photo. She would have seen tears moistening my eyes. I was moved, and not just by the photo; I believe it was the sincerity of Porter’s quest that filled my heart that day. Porter had been entrusted with a unique responsibility and she said yes.
When asked about her experience with Marcel’s letters, Porter told me, “The world is bigger now; I know more about history or, I should say, feel connected to history in a way I’ve never been before. I see how people are touched by this story.” None of this, however, would have happened without Porter’s remarkable ability to embrace curiosity and act boldly.
It’s entirely possible that the letters found Porter every bit as much as she found these letters. Through her tenacity and dedication, Marcel’s beautiful handwriting has been memorialized and his incredible story has been brought to light.
Heidi Fettig Parton holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Her work can be found on Assay Journal, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Agate Magazine, Grown and Flown, The Manifest-Station, Topology Magazine and others. Currently, Heidi is submerged in the risky business of memoir making and often forgets to make dinner. She wishes someone would invent the equivalent of cat food for young humans: an easy meal delivered from bag to bowl, deliciously providing all the nutrients children need (no, it’s not cereal). Follow her on Instragram @heidi_fettig, where you can see way too many pictures of her writing companion, Bilbo—the almost cat.