Monday, July 15, 2013

Favourite things

On Monday of last week, the girls and I were in a used-book store. Devyn slumped in a comfortable leather chair because she was tired; Molly walked around, looking at books and asking questions while I tried to decide whether or not I should buy Stuart: A Life Backwards in trade paperback or look for an ebook copy.



"What's this?" She pointed to a window display.

"That's a typewriter." 

I quickly added more information when I realized that, of course, she would not know what that strange-looking letter box was. "It's what people used before computers..."

The typewriter -- such an iconic image -- had figured prominently in my past. My grandmother had been a secondary school teacher of business arts; she owned many over the years.

At any rate, I played with grandma's fancy electric typewriters over the years: first in her condo when I would have to wade through ill-fitting or upended furniture in her home office; and, then, later when she moved into a house with me, my sister, my mother, and my stepfather.

I remember receiving my own manual typewriter for Christmas one year; I think I was eight years old. Now, I can't be certain: had it been a gift from my grandmother?

We always had typewriters around our house, too, even as my mother signed me up to take a computer programming course in the summer after I'd turned thirteen.

Then, my mother even sent me off, five years later, to university with an electronic typewriter; it didn't occur to anyone to buy me a computer at that point in the late 80s. But, then, the instructions on my near-weekly batch of essays that year invariably bore the words: "must be typewritten" very clearly.

But, to my little girl who had recently turned six, the typewriter was a foreign object that did not suggest the functions that would be easily passed on to, and which were vastly exceeded by, the personal computer. 

It had letters on buttons that Molly really wanted to push. She had never heard the click-click, click-click-click-ding that I remember so clearly.

"Can I play with it?"

"No, I'm afraid that would not be a good idea."


"Well, it's very old...And it's a display in a bookstore."

Would that I could have produced one for her, right there, on the spot.

That's when I remembered a dear friend with whom I had worked in a law office just about a lifetime ago. She was forty years older than I and very much a mother figure to me. She always seemed healthy and strong, as if she had just been outdoors in the fresh air for a long time. 

She sat across the hall from me, and I can still see her: getting up from her desk, walking over to the already-ancient typewriter (as some real estate documents or sections thereof still had to be typewritten in the mid-90s).

"We had to type up mortgages in my day," she told me at least once. "But you weren't allowed to make corrections on the documents; so, even if you were just at the end of the page and you made a mistake, you would have to start all over again."

Another powerful association with that machine! I enjoyed seeing Judy again, even if only as a memory... to see her as she was before cancer took her mind and body and left someone whom I did not know in her see her as I think that she would have been had she lived long enough to meet my children.

I added 'find a typewriter' to my list of things to do with the girls this summer: they would hear click-click, click-click-click-ding, and learn about a time when fixing a mistake wasn't as simple as pressing the BKSP button.

I am happy that "the typewriter" has acquired layers of meaning for me --  memory upon memory -- resulting in a quest for an object that will bear an emotional density that is greater than, say, the first car that Keith and I had.

As they age, the girls are likely to hear the cultural refrain that objects are just material things: they aren't what's important. At least one person at some point in their lives will say that they "can't take 'em" (their material things) with them.

When I wrote about difficulties that the girls and I had encountered with figurative language recently, I wasn't even thinking about the hidden guilt-laden messages that cliches, idioms, and euphemisms often harbour.

Molly and Devyn will discover objects/mementos that they will wish to keep, and it is my hope that they will surmount the cultural expectation of shame in doing so. After all, I trust myself and Keith -- in helping our girls to understand what we consider to be important in this world -- to include respect, integrity, and all the other virtues.

But, given our track record with figurative language, now is probably a good time for me to draw attention to a life lesson about the sense in which objects aren't just things, and the sense in which you may actually "take them" with you. You really can like your objects as mementos, and that's okay. 

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