Remembering typewriters, remembering Dad

 I’ve been thinking lately about typewriters. Dad used them to write, back in the day. He had every kind a writer would need. He had a compact one that could be tucked away in a case when you weren’t using it. That was his everyday typewriter. There was nothing fancy about it: just functional and portable, like a clumsy early predecessor to the laptop.

He also had an older typewriter with round keys. That one was truly elegant. I still remember the feeling of the heavy keys under my fingers as I typed. Each key was a lever. You’d press it down and it caused the letter to swing up, meeting with the ribbon to make a mark on the page. That was my favorite typewriter to use as a kid, and luckily it was the one my older brother and I used most often because it was extra. It was on that typewriter that we wrote our newspaper. 

We called our paper the Portland Weekly, though the “weekly” part of the title was exaggerated. After typing up our paper each week (or month), we took it to Copyset downtown to make as many photocopies as we could afford. Our newspaper was free. We covered all the neighborhood news that intrepid pre-teen reporters could. We also had word games, an advice column, and letters to the editor.

We only had about four issues, so it was a limited edition for sure. We did it all on that antique typewriter with the round keys. But I don’t remember (or perhaps I never knew) where that extra typewriter of Dad’s came from, or where it has gone.

Later Dad had an electric typewriter, a Brother, which is the same brand he got for me when I went off to college. Seeing how computers have totally taken over our lives since then, it’s hard to even imagine the time I went off to college without a personal computer, but truly that’s what I did. I had a Brother electric word processor with a screen as small as a calculator, to compose my papers. I pulled many an all-nighter staring into that 2-inch sliver of a screen, finally pressing “print” to type off pages in the morning. The sound was loud enough to wake up roommates.

When personal computers did make an appearance, Dad had one of the first. He scored it in a trade. He did radio promos for a computer shop in Portland, and in exchange he got a computer to write on and a printer to print. I remember the orange glow of the the cursor on the midnight-gray screen, and the fuzzy dot-matrix pattern of the letters it printed out.

Once Dad switched to computers, he never looked back. A keyboard was a keyboard. Writing is easier when you can save your work to memory, make changes without correction tape, and check your spelling without even opening a dictionary. I didn’t miss typewriters either, until now.

When Dad died I started going through old family archives: pictures and letters and things my mom had saved over the years. I say “old”, but I’m really talking about documents from my lifetime: the seventies and eighties. I came across some letters Dad had written to us: my mom, my brothers, and me. He had moved ahead of us to start a job in Portland, and we were still in Cherryfield packing up the house.The year was 1981. We were moving from a town on the edge of the blueberry barrens to a busy port city, the biggest in Maine.

He wrote to us daily. The letters were typed. As I read I could hear his voice in my head, and I found it so poignant how hopeful and uncertain he was at the same time. He missed us. The refrain he kept repeating each day in each letter was that he knew moving to Portland was a good move for us, and he had a good feeling about it. He maintained this position even after he lost his new job and went on unemployment while he started to look for another. 

Writers write to make sense of the world. They write for themselves as much as for others. They type down their thoughts so they can see them in print and examine them, before sending them out in the world.

I picture my father sitting at his typewriter in the empty apartment with the bay window overlooking Gray Street in Portland, convincing himself along with his family that this was the right move. Even as his days consisted of visiting the unemployment office and pounding the brick sidewalks, delivering his resume, writing samples, and voice demo tapes all over the city. I picture him at the typewriter in the evenings and I can imagine the weight of the keys under his fingers as he made the letters appear one-by-one on the page. I hear the satisfying clacks. And suddenly I miss typewriters. But maybe I just miss those times, so hopeful and uncertain. And maybe I miss my dad.


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