Updated: Apr 29
I remember the sound of typewriter keys on Saturday mornings. Dad would finish his Sunday school lesson by typing his notes on the old Royal, circa 1940-something. It’s a gray, metal machine that weighs about as much as a full box of encyclopedias. Every week he was teaching – which was most weeks – he hauled it back and forth from the kitchen to the spare bedroom. By the time I was in high school, he had moved up to an electric typewriter and retired the Royal to a quiet existence in the linen closet.
Years ago, I laid claim to this old typewriter and promptly placed it on a shelf in an upstairs closet that held the things we couldn’t give away, but never touched. I couldn’t imagine myself typing on it. It was too slow, too heavy, and the font was one size only. Besides, it was outdated technology that held no promise of productivity. Worthless except for its antique value. For a decade I didn’t give the Royal another thought until Dad died last month. The day after his memorial service I went straight to the closet, lifted the heavy as heck typewriter and carried it downstairs to the den bar. We ordered a universal ribbon cartridge that fits most old typewriters and I loaded paper in and began to type quotes. It was clearly a grief project (I highly recommend these), and one that gave me a surprising amount of comfort and connection. Decades ago, my mother typed recipes on index cards on the Royal, and so there were times when the click of the keys were from her fingers. In elementary school I typed my first (very short) stories on it. I was hearing memories.
Because I am an only child, there has been no exercise of divvying up the items that belonged to my parents. Everything that was special to them now belongs to me, and I do not take this lightly. So the typewriter is being put to use to communicate messages of gratitude, encouragement and love, with a contrastingly jarring clack as I type. Any font my computer can spit out pales against the quirky lettering of the Royal, and when I place them side by side, the smudgy, uneven typewritten words prevail. But it comes at a cost. The keys must be pressed with about 10 times more force than my laptop keys, and if you hit the wrong key you don’t get to backspace with a handy delete key. You take the paper out and start over again, even if you were three words from finishing. The keyboard on the typewriter is a QWERTY, cleverly named because the letters at the top-left corner of the keyboard begin with QWERTY. Most computers have this layout, but with very different spacing between the keys. My third and pinky finger are weaklings and can’t push the typewriter keys down, so I type with only forefingers. It’s slow going, but far more precise.
So the old Royal and I are stepping into 2016 together. I am beginning to believe that there is nothing that doesn’t come back around in some form or another. There is an Adinkra symbol in Ghanaian culture called Sankofa. It’s in the shape of a swan that has turned its long neck to look backward. Sankofa symbolizes how much we can learn from the past, and that often looking back is one way we move forward. This is true whether we are learning from mistakes or rediscovering the value of what we thought was left behind. The typewriter is comforting, but also teaches me the beauty of the imperfect – smudged letters, uneven spacing, one font size. I’m typing those quotes and listening to the memories of weekly Sunday school lessons, handed-down recipes and a child’s short stories. I thought these things were gone forever, and maybe that meant they didn’t matter anymore. But now I know they are still with me – comforting and familiar like the typewriter that brought them all back.