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What I learned from three inkless pens and a beer bottle opener

Deborah Kimmett

Deborah Kimmett

After father died, my mom gave me three of his pens and a beer bottle opener. The pens had no ink. And I don’t drink.

My brother Kevin got his ski sweater; Vern received a set of his tools, the third brother still more tools, and someone got a leather jacket.

But the family scribe and a recovering alcoholic was bequeathed three pens with no ink and a beer bottle opener.
For weeks afterward, I’d wake my husband up in the middle of the night, in tears, shaking the impotent pens in his face.

“Three pens with no ink? They’re Bic pens, David, I can’t even buy refills!”
“It wasn’t intentional, Deb. You know it wasn’t.”
“I would have liked his stripper pens. His stripper pens were hilarious.”
“Stripper pens? What are you talking about?”
“Stripper pens! You know those pens with the girly picture on the side of the pen and when you turn it upside down her bathing suit top falls off.”
“What? You wanted stripper pens?! That’s sexist. You would have killed him if he gave you those kind of pens.”
Of course I would have been outraged but stripper pens would make sense. His comedy was old school. His favourite joke was about two men looking longingly over the fence of a nudist camp. One guy says to the other, “Can you imagine her in a sweater?”
So I could hear him saying to my mother: “Deb’s a comic. Give her the stripper pens.”
But a beer bottle opener with 3 pens with no ink?
What did that say to me?

It said stop writing.

Practically speaking, I knew my dad wasn’t thinking about pens the last days before he went to the hospital.
He was too being a stage four-lung cancer patient hopped up on steroids. His last night in the house, the house he had lived in for 40 years he paced the floors like he wanted out of his body. Up and down the hallway he walked. Too agitated to sleep he dragged so many oxygen tank behind him, looking like he was about to go on a scuba diving trip.
“When they bring the oxygen it’s game over,” he said.

The last night I followed him around and said hollow optimistic things; I got him into bed and tired to calm him with affirmations and alternate nostril breathing. I put on harp music. I tried my calm patronizing voice but even this pseudo spiritual ritual would not let him sit still. He would almost drift up then sit up panicked he couldn’t breathe:
“Thanks Deb. I think I’ll walk it out.”
Even in the face of death he was polite: a restless verb.

The next morning he sat in a chair in the kitchen, all bones in long red johns. Each breath was an effort. His face a grey pallor, the all night hiking had worn out cancer filled lungs.
Mom looked out the window.
“Jim, the ambulance is here.”
Two young EMTs came in and dad sat up looking sharp.
“How are you fellas doing today?”
“How are you doing sir?
“No hell.”
Then he bent over the table and wet himself. The morning he left his house forever I know he didn’t yell out “Give Deb the ink-less pens and beer bottle opener.” My Dad would never do that. No, this wasn’t his idea.
It was hers.

A few nights later, I shook my husband awake again
“It was her idea. Mom gave me the inkless pens. It’s a passive aggressive move because she hates my work.”
I sat in bed building a case against her like I was a lawyer.
When she came to my show she criticized for me swearing or told me to get a better mic. “If they can’t hear you it doesn’t matter how funny you are.” (This piece of criticism is true.)

What about the time in 1981? At my first professional gig. I was on stage at the Second City and after I performed my heart out she told me my sleeves were too long. Another time in the same era, a comment came my way, “ I don’t like that bra you are wearing ( I wasn’t Madonna. I wasn’t wearing the bra on the outside of my shirt.) And then there was the time in 1992, when shevcame to my play Miracle Mother at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, saw, without telling me, then left town without mentioning she was here. Weeks later, when I asked her what she thought she said, “I was very disappointed. You should have written a nice play.”

And, if my live performances were threatening the written word was even more so. She wouldn’t read my work. She unsubscribed to my newsletter. She came to my first and only novel launch and wouldn’t buy my book. During that launch she sat in the front row and while I read from novel, she commented to my friends “I don’t know why she does this to me.”

Five years after my dad died I asked her why she gave me three inkless pens and a beer bottle opener.
“I don’t remember. I wanted to get rid of them.”
“But Mom, the pens had no ink.”
“Oh. Well, they were very cheap. Your father never paid good money for anything.”
“But I can’t write with inkless pens.” Tears were running down my cheeks.
“Don’t you write on the computer anyway?”
Obviously I was going to get nowhere with this line of questioning. I changed tactics.

“What about the beer bottle opener?”
“The Beer bottle opener you gave me?
“Why would I give you a beer bottle opener when you don’t drink?”
I am ashamed of this but I still had the damn thing in my purse as some totem of my lack of self worth. I pulled it out and waved it at her.
“This!!! This!!! Why did you give me this?”
She looked at me like I was a mad woman.
“Well that tells you where your mind is, doesn’t it? That opens coke bottles. I knew you liked your Coke from a bottle.”

So I don’t know what her motives are. I have not sorted any of it it out.

Every single time she has criticized me, it’s taken a a bite out of my psyche. Despite all the self-help books and praying like a bastard to not care, the bottom line is I have always wanted her approval. I still do. I don’t think that will ever not be true.
But despite this, it has not deterred me from telling my truth. In some ways it has galvanized my commitment to tell my own story. Since soft pedaling and editing the truth out doesn’t please her, it’s freed me to say what I want.

And the thing is this. At 86 years of age, she still comes to every show. She shows up about two hours early to get a good seat in the front. When I perform, I often get a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. And she is laughing so, so hard. Wiping tears from her eyes she is killing herself laughing.
And afterwards she comes up to me and while people hug me I look at her, ever hopeful, and she says,
“Well, did you hear who died today?”
So write your story,
Write it whether your friends like it. Or not. Whether you get motherly love. Or not. Grab a pen (preferably with ink) and write, write, write.

Deborah Kimmett’s next ONE DAY WRITING RETREATS are August 20th and 27th. Click here for these and other programs available:

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– Deborah Kimmett is a Second City veteran, a regular performer on CBC’s radio and television show “The Debaters” and a sought-after motivational speaker. She engages her audiences with stories and killer humour that ignite, inspire and energize. Visit her web site at to get more information on her writing bootcamps, one-on-one writing coaching and toolkits, including the DIY DIGITAL KIT: THE SEVEN MINUTE WRITER full of podcasts, writing exercises, and powerful pep talks that will unlock the writers blocks and get the creative juices flowing.


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  1. Samantha says:

    Love your stories.

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