Skip to main content
first person
Open this photo in gallery:

Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

If you are a parent, you really have to know when to draw the line. Oh, and one more thing: you have to know where.

Pick any home with a child. Make it a mansion or the most minimal space imaginable and I’ll wager you will find a pencil. It’s as essential as a stove or a furnace and in wonderful ways provides an equal amount of warmth. Sure, you can use it for the icy truths of homework or timetables, but the pencil is a parent’s best friend.

And no matter how many times you’ve scolded your little one for grabbing it and scrawling depictions of sunrises and birds and fuzzy critters and friends all over the drywall, you’ve ignored the fact that you set the bad example yourself. Yes, you did it yourself. We all do it.

Ask any parent. Whether you are upsizing because you need more room or downsizing to empty what is left of the nest, there is one thing that will happen before you lock that door one last time; one thing that will happen before you pass the keys to a realtor.

You will pause for a moment; at least for a moment, and think of a wall in the home you are leaving and all it has meant to you. The home stager told you to paint over those pencil marks and you responded with a blank stare. You just couldn’t do it.

Every family has a bank of photo albums somewhere and they are hauled out when the kids are older or even later to entertain grandchildren who wonder what kind of nerds their parents were way back in the Stone Age.

But on a wall (and it’s usually a kitchen wall), there are hastily drawn horizontal lines with timeline dates that unleash a torrent of memories for parents with which no album could ever compete.

The day it all began for us, my daughter, Mackenzie, had stumbled and scraped her knee and I needed a diversion. How tall was she? Tears were forgotten with this new type of wall art.

The pencil came out. And months later, it came out again, this time at her insistence. Was her cousin really taller? How could that be so if Mackenzie’s old jacket looked too big on her? The pencil was the arbiter of truth.

Every couple of months there was a new reason to head to the wall.

There were frustrating days the line did not move. It didn’t move on the weekend we headed out to the amusement park. She’d been warned by her little friends of height restrictions. She tried to stretch by raising her heels but reluctantly learned through a veil of tears how to embrace baseball’s old nugget, "maybe next year.”

And with each year the graphite marks have been climbing like a vine. I don’t have to get on my knees any more to write down the date. Did she really grow another two inches in the past couple of weeks?

My daughter asked me once about the Great Wall of China – asked me how it could still stand after all that time. I told her she should go look for herself and look for pencil marks. Parents will defend walls against all odds to protect pencil marks. She didn’t get it that day, but I’m betting she will when she becomes a parent herself. I’ll bet if archeologists took a closer look into those old caves in France and Spain, they’d find scratch marks rising on the walls.

My friend Richard, who purchased a cottage recently, told me the seller pleaded to be allowed to take the old pencil-marked bathroom door. Of course, he let him. He has pencil marks in his own life. Most of us do. But still, I wonder what became of that bathroom door.

My friend Buffy’s parents cut off the entire side of a door when they were selling a house to preserve her family’s elevation in stature.

Every real estate agent has a nightmare tale about a home stager that has broken trust and hearts by erasing pencil marks from a home.

A friend of mine told me there are new products available to parents that want to measure life’s progress. It’s apparently some kind of a wall decal you can peel off when you move and stick up again on the next wall that shelters your world. That sounds practical, I suppose. But it really doesn’t sound personal. Perhaps that’s because most of us imagine our homes to be lifelong memory mills where families grow together and reach for the stars.

We may choose to redo the kitchen one of these days but not that wall. That wall has its own purpose and will never change.

There will be many lines drawn in the years to come and they will not only mark her height, but the great changes that will take place in her life. Fall beckons as Grade 3 begins. That will be a new line.

My wife, Zuraidah, and I will stand there with the ruler and the pencil when she heads to high school. There will be that first date. Another mark will be drawn the day she has earned her driver’s licence and another on the day she earns her degree.

The final mark will come the day I walk her down the aisle and pass on the pencil as if it were a baton.

Someday, we’ll all leave this home. Nobody stays in the same place forever any more. Mackenzie will likely go first. And a few years later, after we’re convinced she’s not coming back, the echoes of her little voice in the empty rooms will become too heart-wrenching and we’ll have to go, too.

I’ve got the tape measure out and I’m sizing up the kitchen wall tonight. One way or another, it will be coming with us. I just can’t even imagine leaving it behind.

John Beattie lives in Toronto.

Interact with The Globe