Three years ago we brought home a Remington manual typewriter that belonged to my grandfather. It was housed in a cloth covered case, and we had it sitting out on a table for awhile with clean white paper at the ready. E would occasionally type on it – the clacks of the keys created an uneven staccato and the space bar only worked occasionally. She wrote a few letters on that keyboard, until the ribbon started to fade and the space bar seemed to give up the fight.
There is a letter she typed once:
Did you have a good trip? How long did it take you to get here?
When will grandpa be coming here? Maybe we can go to the zoo! Don’t no [sic]. We can build a parking lot one day when you are here or maybe we could make a world record.
We packed up everything in the living room a few months later, and the typewriter was relegated to the basement, along with everything else. Out of sight, out of mind.
A few years went by and then we were ready to repopulate the room with our squirreled away treasures. M’s hand was newly broken at the time, and so I lugged up heavy crates of books and objects from the dusty, musty space below. The typewriter case left a greenish cast when I placed it on the table. I tried to wipe the surface of the case down with various wipes, thinking it was dusty, and then fading, the greenish color of the material chipping from the surface. M walked in and declared it was mold and then I realized he was right. The case was beyond saving, and the dust cloud I was covered in now felt toxic and gross. I put it on the back porch and opened it up to rescue the typewriter.
All those places where palms and fingers had rested and inky words had been forged – all of those areas were covered with billowy white clouds of mold, black spots lingering in the centers. The mold had attacked the paint finish of the typewriter housing and left ghost-like silhouettes of hand prints in its place. I bagged it in plastic immediately and thought about ways to clean it, to make it safe and usable again. I washed it, I bleached it, I scrubbed it with various levels of grit and elbow grease. I rinsed it, but the mold was stubborn and wouldn’t go away. I wrapped it back up in plastic, and left it for awhile – sad that the machine that I wanted to sit on the library shelves, the machine I wanted the girls to be able to load library cards into and type away on, the machine that belonged to my grandfather and now to me, no longer worked. I felt sad, I felt guilty, annoyed, and slightly repulsed.
There it was – a typewriter in a plastic bag. I didn’t know what to do with it. My first instinct was to pitch it and wash my hands a few more times. Do you know how hard it is to throw something away like that? Hard enough that it wasn’t happening.
My second thought was to continue bleaching it until all the mold was gone – removing the various mechanical pieces and parts to get in all the nooks and crannies. Do you know how hard it is to watch your children play with something that was once covered in black mold? Hard enough that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy the click-clacking away like I used to. I’d harp at them to wash their hands, and I’d lift the machine to stare at the underside to make sure the mold had not survived and returned.
My third thought was to donate it – drop it off in a bin somewhere so that maybe someone would find it and love it enough to save it despite the eaten away finish and non-functioning, overbleached parts. But I felt guilty about it, wondering about others that might pick it up and not know how gross it really was.
So I did nothing, except to sulk and feel badly about something that I failed to take care of and appreciate enough.
I should add another aspect of shifting to my list from my earlier post. Shifting is hazardous. Shifting places things out of sight and out of our care, and there’s a general risk to this sort of thing. I thought I could stack that typewriter in its case on a shelf in an old basement and expect that three years later I’d find it in the same condition as when I first set it there. It wasn’t, and now I had to shift my thinking about this thing before I could move forward. Otherwise it was just going to sit in a plastic bag on the back porch forever.
It was a beautiful object. It was old in that retro-attractive way. It was outdated, in that same way. It was a departure from the computer, iPad, smartphone keyboard. It had one function – writing – with no other distractions like the internet or reply messages. It was going to look good on those library shelves, surrounded by printed books bound in leather. It belonged to someone that I love. He used to type me letters on that machine and mail them to my college address. I loved having it.
Some of the greatest examples of creativity come from a sense of nostalgia. But nostalgia can be crippling as well; a complex mixture of longing and recollection and melancholy and happiness and sorrow and pining and guilt. I needed to make sure that whatever I did with the typewriter emphasized the idea of happiness and recollection. I also need to make sure I let go of the melancholy and the guilt. It’s an object, it got old and damaged and that was disappointing. But still, it was just an object. Everything has its own lifespan, and I need to always remember that this is a fleeting notion, temporal. We can shift our perceptions, our outlook, our ideas of value and worth. It’s not always easy to do it, and sometimes it takes a little while – bagged up in plastic on the back porch – before we can summon the nerve to make the shift.
I cleaned it again. I let it sit out in the sun on my birthday and drink in the spring breezes. I painted it white, first the bottom and then the top. I’m going to mount it on the wall, and hang a typed message above it – something to see when I first walk into the house and last before I leave. We won’t be able to type letters on it any more, but that doesn’t stop the letter writing, and doesn’t stop the stories.
There are always stories to tell, even when the ribbon runs dry.