Lessons from a typewriter

Lessons from a typewriter

LUCIA NISLY

Features Editor

lcnisly@goshen.edu

It was my mother who taught me to write. She would never call herself a writer, in the same way that she would never call herself an artist, yet she carved intricate images for print-making and embroidered breath-taking scenes mountains and oceans and wheat fields across vast stretches of fabric. Early every morning, while it was still dark, she’d make herself tea and sit in her armchair, filling journals with sweeping, sometimes unintelligible script . I always knew that even her shopping lists – butter, sour cream, blueberries– were a work of art. After working on a piece that had been with her for a few weeks, and having gone through various stages of rough drafts, she would lug her old 1985 Olivetti typewriter up the creaky wooden steps from our basement and set it on the dining room table.

This typewriter was one of the few treasured belongings she brought with her when she left Switzerland to move to our small dairy farm in Partridge, in the middle of Kansas, a relic from a past life. She would load the paper, slide over the carriage, and begin typing out the final version of whatever poem, or short story, or essay she had prepared.

“When my husband first gave me a tour of the family farm I was glad cows were not unfamiliar to me,” my mother wrote, “and when invited to help him in the parlor at milking time I soon enjoyed the rhythm of… putting on milking equipment. After the cows had poured their gallons of warm, frothy milk into glass weigh jars, it was my job to remove the milkers and dip their teats in a cup of protective solution before opening the gate to let the calmly ruminating animals file out. It takes some time for the cow to let down her milk, so the process, while efficient, is never hurried and there was time for social interaction as long as the machines perform their tasks reliably. I learned to milk by hand and by individual vacuum pump as a child: Relatives of my grandmother’s operated a small mountain farm, and during summer vacations I used to spend a few weeks on their dairy. Since I wasn’t much interested in house cleaning or gardening I was put to work in the barn.”

With every push of a key, there was a clear sense of purpose, and for a woman who was filled with self-doubt these sessions were full of a quiet confidence, a knowledge that she had the ability to bring her work to fruition. It was a fleeting moment, and it was not a surprise that afterwards she would tuck the papers away in an old chest. But sometimes, before she carried the burdensome machine back down the stairs, she would let me perch beside her on the wooden bench by our table, and I would type out a few lines of whatever struck me as interesting in the moment. I never prepared for these moments, never brought out a journal entry to refine and transcribe into a typed piece, but Mami was happy to watch me, and I was sure that my ramblings were strokes of genius. She would eagerly read my work, advise on grammar and phrasing, and, in the end, praise me for my efforts.

With years, the old typewriter fell into disrepair. It was long outdated and hard to find parts for; computers were very much a household staple- just not in our house. I remember feeling confused by the extent of her frustration. I would watch her try to operate the faulty machine with declining success. Often she would be reduced to tears, angrily closing her journal and disappearing into her room for hours. Eventually, she stopped bringing the typewriter up the stairs. While I’m sure she continued to write in her journals, I missed the ceremony of creating a finished work. For years, I forgot my mother was a writer.

Then one Christmas, my father gave her a $500 Asus Notebook PC, an unimaginably extravagant gift in my family. Her initial reaction was excitement, but trepidation quickly followed. She didn’t open it for a week after she got it, and when she finally did she stayed in her room for hours, the only sign of life her occasional yelps of exasperation. Once she finally emerged the verdict was “it’s a stupid machine.” Nevertheless, she toiled over the new technology, trying to learn how to transfer photos onto the hard drive, type in the built-in word processor, and set up her own email. She no longer worked at the dining table. For each of these hurdles, I was frequently called into her room to demonstrate and she would take notes on how many times I clicked an icon, and where on the screen the shortcut to her email was located. Occasionally, I would bring a book into her room and curl up on her bed as she worked. Sometimes, I would look up and watch her. She no longer looked confident. Her slow navigation of the keyboard no longer looked meditated and focused, but nervous and uncertain. She would finish the work she had assigned herself for that day feeling exhausted and drained, not renewed. As I grew older, I ached for my mother, a woman who felt most secure and seen in a familiar environment, but had been forced to give up all her comforts of home. Kansas was not  a home to her, and technology was not either. My mother has always been brilliant, and watching her fumble over her laptop was as frustrating for me as it was for her. But time helped. The apple and peach trees she planted when she first moved grew bigger. She became more comfortable as a mother, something that was not a natural or easy role for her right at the beginning. And her small routines on her laptop became more memorized. She began writing a column for Barnyard News, a quarterly publication on farm life, a fact that she casually shared with the family after the first two publications had already been released. She never kept copies of the publication around the house, and often I only saw her column when an elderly person at church clipped it out and handed it to us in an envelope with some form of congratulations scrawled on it. But I could see sparks of the old confidence return from time to time.

To this day, my mother does not understand technology. However, watching her grapple with it taught me not only of her insecurities but also of her resilience. I am learning to not be scared by times when she is faced with a great deal of unfamiliarity. She has always learned to adapt as far as she must.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from her in the mail. Folded up next to the card was one of her columns from 2014, one I had never read.

“Today even that small dairy in the Swiss mountains has a pipeline that sucks the milk directly from the weigh jar in the parlor to a bulk tank in the milk house where it is cooled for later pick-up by the milk truck. On most dairies, hand-milking is only used when a cow can’t be brought into the barn for various reasons. In our own barn in Kansas, the rhythmic swish of the vacuum pump provides an agreeably lulling background sound to the milking activities. The bulk tank in the adjoining milk room collects around 500 gallons of milk each day which is picked up by the milk co-op’s truck every other day. Woe to the farmwife who, distracted by her many chores, has neglected to pay attention to the arrival of the milk truck! She will be left with no milk to make her pancakes for breakfast.”

Record
Written by Record

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