One of my coffee table acquaintances recently remarked on the decline in simple penmanship displayed by so many young people. He had just tried to decipher the handwritten breakfast ticket brought by a cute teen-aged waitress.

“Look at this… Is it what we ordered? I can’t make heads nor tails of her writing. It’s worse than my doctor’s.”

This was the spark needed to ignite a lively debate at our table about how people don’t write with pen and paper anymore. My companions, senior citizens all, bemoaned dependence on the tiny keyboards of smart phones and mobile devices, and what a shame it is that the swirls and curly-cues of cursive writing are going the way of the dinosaur.

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Personally, I felt they were being presumptive. Even back when schools intensively taught penmanship, some of us flunked out. I was only mediocre, but my late wife was disastrous. I wrote a column about the problems my sons and I encountered when trying to figure out her shopping lists, which seemed to be written in illegible code.

Back in the late 20th Century when our kids were ages 11 and 7, respectively, my sons and I did the weekly grocery shopping. One particular foray to the local Piggly Wiggly store stands out. Let me paint the scene: Father and sons milling in the bread aisle, holding a scrap of paper covered with scribbles, and scratching our collective heads.

Dad: “What in the world is spayed stork?”

Son 1 (oldest): “Says here she wants a bag of Wallies. Is that a new breakfast cereal?”

Son 2 (youngest): “Naw. Never heard of it, and I keep up with that stuff. No Saturday morning TV commercials about it, anyway.”

Son 1: “Sounds pretty good. I am tired of corn flakes.”

Dad: “I can’t understand these either… immolated podiatrists? One pound of venereal napkins?”

Son 2: “We don’t need that old list. I can’t read so good yet, but I know what Mom wants from the store. Cupcakes and ice cream. She wants us to get chocolate cupcakes and vanilla ice cream. Twinkies, too!”

Son 1 (scoffing): “Nice try, kid. This is a problem that requires an inquiring mind like mine to solve. Give me the list.”

(He flourishes the paper like a scholar preparing to translate a text of ancient Greek.)

Son 1: “No problem-o. It says here we should get cat cheese and loafer guts.”

Father and sons share blank stares. A red-faced lady shopper huffs and gestures for us move out of the aisle. We relocate to the frozen food section.

This being the era before cell phones, we had two choices: call home on the pay phone in front of the store or admit defeat. We chose the latter. With tails between our legs, we slunk home to receive illumination from my wife.

Son 2 (on the way out): “Let’s not forget the ice cream and cupcakes.”

Back home, while we spooned ice cream in bowls and stuffed ourselves on cupcakes, she took the list and called out the items, while I transcribed.

“It’s all perfectly clear,” she said. “I don’t know why you came back from the grocery store with nothing but cavity-causing sweets.”

Here’s the translation for the benefit of other illiterate grocery shoppers:

Spayed stork = spray starch.

Bag of Wallies = bag of walnuts.

Immolated podiatrists = instant mashed potatoes.

Venereal napkins = Vidalia onions.

Cat cheese = cottage cheese.

Loafer guts = low-fat yogurt.

Back to the present: Any high school student working part-time at the local diner can be excused for submitting an illegible bill for ham and eggs. It’s only important that the griddle cook and the gal at the cash register understand what she wrote.

Today, cursive writing is indeed a dying art due to texts and emails, Twitter and Instagram. But it started to go downhill with my family’s grocery list.

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Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachian Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald bi-weekly.