When I was about seven years old, my grandmother let me sit at her electric typewriter. Her office, housed in a cold and unfinished basement, had equine pencil drawings from a talented granddaughter on one wood paneled wall and photos of her and grandpa posing with a variety of friends on another. The chrome chair boasted about seven mismatched seat cushions of differing colors, textures and sizes. On the back of the chair hung oversized wool sweaters, cotton throws and a crocheted blanket of a startling mixture of colors. The result was a chair that looked something like a tiny vanilla cupcake loaded with five inches of layered pink, yellow, blue and green frosting, sprinkles, and patriotic flags, all sliding off to different sides.
Because she was notably hard of hearing and spent surprisingly little time in the kitchen, search and find was usually always a better option for locating her in their big creaky house than mere call and listen. Down the squeaky parquet stairs, I could usually find her perched atop her heaped and leering chair: my grandmother, the perpetually cold, tall, boney, straight backed and bespectacled woman who was always in a warm mood. “Oh honey,” she would say, “I’ve got to finish this one thing first, but then we’ll make some lunch. You must be hungry.” Time of day or proximity to last meal: these things had very little reign over her appetite. And if she was hungry, naturally anyone around her must be too. Of course her hunger, and subsequent offerings of poorly tasting snacks (my grandmother, a Scot, ran the blandest kitchen I’ve ever step foot in), was an avenue for the expression of her compassionate spirit.
I really don’t think it had much to do with her age, her tendency to intermix names of family members: mine, often intermixed with my mother’s, confused with a cousin’s, or an aunt’s. Early on, grandma just interweaved some syllables from the names of her two daughters as a multi-purpose designation for both—voila! Confusion avoided. She only had to call the one name and both faces would appear. Years later, when the girls left home, this technique continued to be just as handy for grandma, or at least she continued to employ it. The interesting thing is that, to my knowledge, no one in the family found this practice insulting or diminutive to their sense of individuality or relationship with her. Perhaps they unconsciously understood something about the nature of affection that others of us are still learning.
I’ve been reading Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin. In it, he describes a dream in which memories of his younger brother are mixed with feelings for his son. He goes on to suggest that just as one may have emotions of homesickness in college when leaving parents, so too homesickness may strike in moments of separation from one’s own children. He concludes that recognizing the common denominator in these feelings is important in recognizing the very nature of love and our capacity for affection. As guests on an interconnected planet; as parents, children, siblings, spouses, nieces and aunts, our expression of affection links us as fellow human beings; our capacity to love and be loved reminds us of our commonality. Grandma was far from demonstrative with her affections, or even materially generous, if we’re being completely honest. But, perhaps during those moments when she called us by the name of another, we were secure enough in her affection for us. Her very lack of self-consciousness when misnamed introductions were made to strangers increased our confidence that we didn’t need to be self-conscious either: her affections were broad enough we needn’t be intimidated at the prospect of temporarily sacrificing a mere name; her love saw the family as an interconnected whole. And that was enough.
That day she sat me behind her typewriter had no reason to be so vivid in my memory. Nothing exceptional happened. Tipitty-tap-tap, Tapitty-tip-tap-tap, my fingers purposelessly sashayed from key to key. It was the sound of pushed and released keys I was after, not the meanings of their combined impressions on the paper. Perhaps it was in the imitation of her boney fingers moving from key to key, the slow, but rhythmic dance of colons and space bars and commas and dashes that entranced me. Perhaps it was just sitting on her elaborately pillow bedecked chair. Perhaps it was being between those two walls that evidenced care. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later I even had aspirations to write. Sometimes though, I wonder if the feeling of warmth, safety and security in that basement; that keen intimation of a profound place in her interwoven world of love, the unmistakable sound of pushed keys and acceptance regardless of articulation had a role in my now unshakable urge to continue tapping those keys.