The typewriter’s film of dust: I could have written in it with a finger. It had been a while since she’d found reason to type anything. The last thing, perhaps, a fresh list of contacts she carried around with her, knowing she could not be trusted to know, might not remember. Her family, our names, phone numbers tying her to what she knows she knew, to who is tied to her, who ties her to home as she walks, her walks in tighter circles as she comes to not know what she knew. Have I shown you this? she’d often said, pulling the folded list from a pocket. Or, What’s this, she’d ask, pulling the folded list from a pocket. Oh, yes. Have I shown you this? She was always a preparer, thinking, planning, figuring, preparing.
I was there packing, packing clothes for the rest of her life, whatever it would look like. What does a ninety-four-year-old need? How many bras? A sweatshirt with a garden on it? Her USA baseball cap? I have no idea. All the underwear that’s not decrepit, her fleece jackets, two dress blouses, two dress pants, a pretty jacket. I don’t know. Sneakers. Light hikers? Slippers. Nice loafers? I don’t know. How many sweaters? How many sweaters does anyone need ever? How many pairs of corduroy pants in pastel colors?
I was there packing, packing clothes for the rest of her life, whatever it would look like. What does a ninety-four-year-old need?I have filled garbage bags with her life. Articles clipped out of magazines, magazines, small pads of paper, old bug spray, piles of paperclips, maps, pencils and pencils, pens, erasers. A spare roll of correction tape for the typewriter. Should I keep the typewriter? She wrote some of her classic tales on it. The one about the Texan on the bus trip in Canada. What do y’all Yankees think about us Texans? We don’t think of you at all. The one about winning the speech contests all the way up to the state level when she was a girl. By the shores of Gitchee Gumee. By the shining big sea waters. The one about her boss at the Horn and Hardart accusing her twenty-something self of fraternizing with the customers when the “Okay, I’ll see you Friday” meant she had just served coffee to her dentist and she was due for a checkup. I will find the pages somewhere, in a file folder. In days (years) to come, I will sometimes remind her of the stories she told again and again. Really? she’ll ask. Interesting, she’ll say.
I will show her photos of herself in her seventies, standing on a sidewalk in New York City, waiting to hold hands with two strangers who hold hands with two strangers who hold hands across the country with Hands Across America, a fundraiser for our poor. I will explain the photos to her again and again, and each time will tear up about this tender and silly-innocent initiative that she so proudly joined.
We will look at her terrible photos—always blurry, unartful, on the fly—from Germany, China, Thailand, Tennessee, Seattle, London, an Adirondack hike, an Oregon camping trip, in front of a church in Prague, along a canal in Paris. Is that me? she’ll ask. Yes, I’ll say. Is that you? She’ll point at an old photo of her young self. No, that’s you, I’ll say.
I look for but do not find the old Brownie. It hadn’t worked in years, but I remember as a child peering down into its viewfinder, feeling the nubbled leather of it in my hands. I must have found her current camera. I do not remember what I did with it.
Without our memories what are we? She remains a Maine-iac, a former travel agent, a mother of MichaelMartinMaryMarilyn, someone who does not like vegetables, or flying insects, or food that gets under her dentures. She never wins at Bingo (she frequently wins at Bingo). She’s not interested in things she used to be interested in. You like peaches, I tell her. Oh, she says. Interesting. She no longer likes mandarin oranges, until she sees what they are. She loves chocolate. She’s from Maine. She was a travel agent. Been all over the world. She has… four children, MichaelMartinMaryMarilyn. She believes she has grandchildren. Yes, she says vaguely. She has a great-grandchild, I explain. She does not understand that idea. Interesting.
She remembers that she must use her walker. She does not remember a time when she did not use a walker. Sometimes she remembers a time when she did not use a walker. She remembers how to pronounce certain Welsh place-names. She cannot remember exactly who Jan Sibelius is or how to pronounce Jan. She likes to say, “après vous,” impressing the aides in her facility. Some research on the development of the sense of self indicates that memory and goal-related behavior and the memory of goal-related behavior work to define the self for the self. If you have no memory and no goals, who are you?
Among her articles neatly scissored, I found one detailing instructions from the Hemlock Society.
Typed notes from trips. Typed envelopes ready to send her rent, unless the landlord himself stopped by to borrow her hammer or a screwdriver from her little toolkit. Typed list of items to remember to bring on trips: Band-Aids, a small expandable clothesline, binoculars. Typed list of people to send Christmas cards to. Last year I’d asked, Who are Madelyn and Don? People she’d exchanged Christmas cards with for years. I can’t remember. Isn’t that awful, she said. Is she a cousin? A college roommate? I thought of the photos of four laughing women on the roof of a building in New York. One hand to her mouth in mock horror, she repeats, I don’t remember. Isn’t that awful?
The sense of self must begin on the skin. Warm water in the womb; mucus on the way; woop, air everywhere. Discovery of the hand. The foot. The Other. The World. Then the whole unfolding story of our life, a story narrated and rewritten in our head, retold to the world, reflected back to us by those people who say, “I remember that time when you…” or, “Tell that story again about when you…” Responses to the world become habits of mind. Will I ever forget that apple pie makes me shudder? She is always cordial, always polite, always thanks people for visiting, thanks people for assisting her. Some days she says yes to going for a walk and some days no, not now. Some days she says, I don’t know, what should I do?
The sense of self must begin on the skin. Warm water in the womb; mucus on the way; woop, air everywhere. Discovery of the hand. The foot. The Other. The World.Near the door she long kept a small backpack. I discover inside it a pair of underwear, a pair of socks, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a soft container of Kleenex, a roll of toilet paper, a small bottle of water, a packet of peanut butter crackers. She never knew when opportunity or emergency might arise. I had called her one day to say we were going up to our mountain house and would she like to come. We would not get there until later this evening, but she could come the next day. She heard “come to the mountain house.” We arrived after eight p.m. to find her settled on the porch sofa, the porch door having been uncharacteristically left unlatched, with her book, bottle of water, packet of crackers, the blanket she kept in her car for emergencies. She didn’t know where we were, but if we didn’t show up, she was ready to settle in for the night. I no longer latch the porch door, in case some other traveler needs a couch.
Piles of letters from old friends, postcards. I find my own handwriting scrawled tiny on international letter paper, that thin blue stuff onto which I would try to pack my adventures running around the edges. I don’t find the very old postcards from my dad that she’d kept for some reason for years and that I would, as a preteen, periodically take out and examine. Hong Kong. Amsterdam. His blocky handwriting looked just like my brothers’. Her own neat writing appears on notes to herself, notes taken about books she was reading, dates to remember.
In the last few years, on the arm of her sofa she kept tiny slips of paper with the days of the week typed on them, each attached to a paper clip. Each day she would attach the proper day’s name to her purse.
It had been mine, I think, the typewriter. Maybe an older one was in a closet somewhere, or I’d already hauled it away in one load to the Salvation Army. The self-correcting tape was a miracle. Gone the days of feverish erasing with the pencil-like white eraser, always grinding away at the paper, and the tiny whisk broom at the other end to flick away the debris, the extra e, the misspelling, the errant comma, converted to dust and sailing around the room to settle in crevices in the floor. I had read somewhere that the first typewriter to be mass-produced was made by the sewing machine manufacturer Remington, which also went on to produce firearms. This all seems fitting.
She has outlived her money, her hearing, her brain, her lifelong good health, her better judgment, her best intentions. Judas Priest, she used to swear. I did? she says. Interesting. Tough shit is her new favorite.
This model is a Brother. In place of the old metal arm that pulls the paper along, this has an automatic carriage return and paper feed. It has a neatly fitted top that snaps into place and a handle for carrying. Each letter cradles the fingertip. The space bar is shinier than the rest. If I un-scroll the correction tape, I will find impressions of the things taken away. If I un-scroll the ink ribbon, I will find the impression of what was written, dim, blurred letters, ghost stories. Names and numbers.