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Typewriter

Growing up, I knew some things in the house were my father’s, while others were my mother’s.

The radial arm saw? Dad’s. Don’t touch.

The typewriter? Mom’s. It was black with a subtle sheen like anthracite, the size of a watermelon and just slightly lighter than the Studebaker in the driveway. A contraption of cast iron and chrome, it clacked and clattered as the carriage tap-danced in time to the keystrokes, a bright bell dinging at the end of each line.

My grade-school self would sit on a stool, wristing a piece of paper around the roller and rapping out lines that sometimes contained actual words but usually looked like QPWOIEEEeeeee23(0@#%*. Considering the abuse it took from five curious kids, it’s fair to say the typewriter was bulletproof. By the time I learned to type in high school, though, that old Underwood was an afterthought, having been shunted aside by an IBM Selectric.

Manual typewriters have professional significance for me. At the first newspaper I worked at, I typed stories on a manual typewriter: a Royal with an action as smooth as the skin of fresh Jell-O. I revised the stories with a thick-leaded pencil, using editing symbols that were a language unto themselves—a language now dead as Latin. Today’s computerized cutting-and-pasting had a literal meaning back then; no reporter’s desk was complete without a pair of long scissors and a smoky amber bottle filled with rubber cement, an inch-wide brush at the tip of a steel shaft speared through the bottle cap.

I lost track of the typewriter when my mother and dad moved to Florida from their home in upstate New York in 2004. One night earlier this year, on a whim during a telephone conversation, I asked my mom what had become of it. I expected her to say she lugged it South or had simply discarded it. But it turned out that before she moved, she took it to a local office supply store, a family-owned place. She gave it to the owner, Dave, because she didn’t know what else to do with it. I had been in the store within the last year and had corner-eyed an old typewriter sitting on a desk. Maybe …

When I stopped by the store, I thought I had found my mom’s typewriter. It didn’t look like the one I remembered from childhood, but as I age, my memory isn’t reliable. I told Dave who I was and asked about the typewriter; I told him I thought it had been my mother’s. No, he said. He remembered the machine my mother gave him. He had donated it to the local Historical Society a couple of years ago.

The next morning, I visited the Historical Society. The building was open afternoons on Wednesdays through Saturdays. I made a note to come back. And then, as often happens, life kept giving me other things to do from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working on a minor house project that took longer than it should have. After I had sweated the last detail, my wife asked why I had put so much effort into such a minor project. I replied with a sigh, “I’m my father’s son.” To say my father was meticulous understates it. During the years when he gutted and remodeled each room in our house, the words “good enough” weren’t part of his vocabulary. “Patrick,” he once said to me, “it’s hell to be a fussbudget.” I never really understood what he meant until I was diagnosed as being obsessive-compulsive.

When I made the comment about being my father’s son, my wife countered, “You’re your mother’s son too.” Although I knew it to be true (I figured the genes were 50-50), I could never figure out how it was true. So I asked my wife to explain. Among the things she said was that I’m a good communicator, like my mother. My mother’s letters are always perfectly composed: Smooth syntax. Flawless punctuation. Precise grammar. A clear, personal, conversational tone. For as long as I’ve read them, I’ve never seen an error. Pretty good for someone who never went to college.

All of a sudden, finding that typewriter became a lot more important to me.

A little after 1:30 the following Friday afternoon, I stopped by the Historical Society. It occupies the shady first floor of a carriage house behind a Victorian mansion. After my eyes adjusted to the low light, I spotted a typewriter on the lowest shelf of a dusty-glassed display case. Moving closer and bending down, I saw—

—that it wasn’t the typewriter I was looking for. Deflated, I poked around the room, as this was my first visit to the Historical Society. I was immersed in the old-time photos of now-dead railroads, vanished schools, and a long-forgotten local brewery, when:

There it was, on an austere desk in a far corner. No doubt. It was the old Underwood. A little hand-inked sign sat on the desk, saying, “Antique typewriter. Do not touch,” with another little sign saying it was on loan from Dave.

Two women were working in the display area; they looked to be at least 15 years older than my 55, from a generation that gave them the grace to listen when a stranger walks up to one of them and says, “Excuse me, but I have a question about that typewriter.” I continued: It had been my mother’s, and when she and my dad moved South she had given it to Dave, who told me he had loaned it to the Historical Society—and because the typewriter had been my mother’s, could I possibly have it?

The first woman called the second woman over. “Just a minute,” she said, walking into the nearby office. Picking up the telephone, she called out, “What was your name again?”

As the first woman and I talked about local history, I caught bits of the phone conversation in the other room. The other woman was calling Dave, telling him what I wanted. “Is that all right with you?” she asked him.

Dave said yes, I could have the typewriter.

I repeatedly thanked the women, pledged to join the Historical Society, and then lugged the typewriter, which weighs slightly less than a Studebaker, to the car. The following Sunday, I carried it up to my office at work and placed it on a table just inside my door, where anyone coming into the office will see it.

As I said, it’s clear to me what traits I inherited from my father. And now, when I look up from my work and see the typewriter, I’m reminded that yes, I’m my mother’s son too.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
nodressrehersal
Sep. 9th, 2009 01:36 am (UTC)
Great story and storytelling - what a marvelously happy ending!

Now I don't feel so silly for falling madly in love with the little manual typewriter of my aunt's that she gave me to sell at the garage sale. Nor do I feel even a titch guilty for snatching out of the arms of a neighborhood girl with $20 clutched in her fist, or for refusing her attempt at bartering when she offered $10.

And of course, I've been meaning to write a post about it...
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 9th, 2009 10:37 am (UTC)
You're lucky that girl's mom wasn't a lawyer.
penshark
Sep. 9th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
I agree with NDR -- great storytelling, as always.

And I now have to come and ooh at the typewriter.
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 9th, 2009 10:38 am (UTC)
It still works, but it needs a ribbon.
cwmackowski
Sep. 9th, 2009 03:56 am (UTC)
I love that we live in a town where you can walk into a place and say "Can I have that typewriter," and a quick phone call later, the answer is "Yes."

What a fantastic story, felix. What a fantastic story.
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 9th, 2009 10:38 am (UTC)
Their giving it away so readily was surprising. You're right: Would that have happened somewhere else?
nodressrehersal
Sep. 9th, 2009 11:37 am (UTC)
Anywhere else, you would've heard, "Dave's not here, man."
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 9th, 2009 11:51 am (UTC)
Man, does that phrase ever bring back some memories.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 9th, 2009 09:07 pm (UTC)
St Pete here: So glad you got it back. When we talked over the summer I hoped you could. I can hear that bell as clear as day.
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 10th, 2009 04:50 am (UTC)
St. Pete: I was thinking I should test it to see if the bell still rings, but I didn't want to push my luck.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 10th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
yladst here...I remember Mom teaching me to type on the Underwood:"a,s,d,f,g, semi,l,k,j,h..." Learned more from her in 1 day than in a whole semester from The Flash. I'm so glad you got the typewriter, and that you didn't get a hernia carrying it to your office.
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 10th, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)
Didn't get a hernia, but my back hasn't been the same since then.
lancaster1250
Sep. 19th, 2009 02:40 am (UTC)
Professor Vecchio, it's Brett. for some reason you e-mail didn't work, so I read your narrative essay here. Most excellent, but I am excited for Monday's compositional inquisition. Have a nice weekend!
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 19th, 2009 02:46 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading and for the kind words, Brett. I am looking forward to Monday too. Enjoy the weekend!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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