Bio Note: As life goes on, I have been surprised by the ways in which I've followed my mother - writer, legal secretary and now occasional visual artist - even as I see other of her qualities echoed more strongly in my sisters. She died in May 2004. I wrote the first draft of "Typing" in 2004-2005. The attorney who was my employer for 25 years, and who died recently, has a cameo in the poem.
When she was 20 my mother escaped from Bellevue, Ohio to Cleveland, enrolled in secretarial school, hoping she might elude her mother’s watchful gaze and the ghost of her dead father. I can almost see her, just before the War, her wavy brown hair and shining face, hazel eyes slowly opening to the possible. In secretarial school she perfected how to turn a boss’s words to hieroglyphs, bewitch them back, type them up in triplicate, carbon paper between sheets. Dance of fingers over gilt-edged keys. In her new suit, hat and gloves (paid for how? poor as she was), high heels making her a giantess, she won work with a corporate law firm, learned all the clients’ names and voices, how to prepare agreements, deeds and wills, stock certificates and billing, personal letters and the kids’ term papers. Sleekly clad, careful not to smile too wide and show a mouthful of cheap dentures, soon valued for sharp mind and quick fingers, she swam upward from the secretarial pool, became one lawyer’s jewel. Living at the Y with other women newly fledged to city life, shy duckling transformed, dreamed a limitless horizon. ~ At eight I taught myself to type one-fingered, right index a blur above the keys, but slow, as typists go. When I reached high school she decided I must learn touch typing. Out came the yellowed secretarial books designed to make an adolescent mewl, out came an autocrat. First the memorization of the keyboard, then the assignment of each finger to a group of keys, mastering an aerial ballet, wrists straight, never resting. The same pattern of strokes over and over. Eyes not on hands’ work but on the passage to be tamed. Almost to a metronome, the even clicking of keys easing me through years of stories, pieces for the high school paper, college essays, editing and freelance gigs, until in middle age I chose safe haven, became amanuensis to a lawyer, transcriber, telephone-answerer, aide, as my mother was, as my young self determined I would never be. Nearly Zen, the float of fingers over keyboard; not-quite-Zen, his voice emitting from dictation tape. Listening to and trimming down his tics: in the interim; frankly, I am shocked and appalled; you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away; although, of course, you can, and most folks do. Headset on, mind partially engaged, able to transform him into chipmunk or slow-spoken walrus, able to erase his voice entirely, but choosing to be good, be kind, a sometimes amiable, sometimes perfect scribe. ~ Immersed in her girls’ needs, Girl Scout troops, piano lessons and the PTA, she didn’t talk about those typing days when she was free. Much later she turned secretary for one church, then another, embarked on years of ministers’ notes, mimeographing newsletters, transcribing blurbs of ecumenical joy. Quietly efficient, discretion modified by glints of devilishness shimmering through decorum, how she must have shocked avuncular pastors pleased by her work, worried by her wit, as she once stunned businessmen and soldiers sauntering Cleveland streets, that tall girl with the beautiful legs and hair, the gentle eyes, the unexpected twists of speech. She also wrote short stories, poems, corralling idle thoughts between long bouts of work. Something genetic maybe, an inherited bent for bending words to paper, your own or someone else’s, sweet hours given to ordering nouns, verbs, preposterous participles past and present, wild unruly modifiers. Near the end she was obsessed with color, shape, intuitive strokes on canvas, though she hadn’t seemed the type. ~ What type am I, Helvetica, Times Roman, Century, Arial or Zapf Dingbat? Most likely Courier, carrier, cousin of old Underwood, beloved machine abandoned as I teetered toward the carpal tunnel. So many tales pounded out on ancient keys when I was just a sliver of a girl, in love with clacking metal, all those black-eyed a’s and o’s, having to be banished to the sunlit world, ordered to go out and play, weave stories with the other kids, bump up against a chaos I could not command but tried to, making rules they wouldn’t follow, building structures they dismantled, sneaking back inside to books and notebooks, theory of control, not knowing even the most restrained and tightly-reined of verses tend to lose composure, veer wildly from intentions, break loose and gallop where you never meant to go. ~ Sometimes she’d say, What have you been typing lately? causing me to bristle, overreaction to a question asked without a hint of guile, insult unintended. I don’t type, I write. This before transcription filled my days, when I believed myself more pure than the employed could ever be, was unconcerned with savings, pension, distant and unlikely illness. If she were here I’d answer, Legal briefs, mom, clients’ stories, bucket-loads of case law, letters, that’s what I’ve been typing, those and snippets of unfinished conversation between you and me, first winnowed down by hand on legal pads, then magicked into type, the way you showed, in wedged-in hours before the day’s paid work begins, before the telephone, here in the office that’s my solace and my penitentiary, where thought compresses into little spaces marked by roman numerals on the clock that tells me time’s run out. In the nursing home she curled into a cipher, lost all her words, hard drive wiped clean of all the answers to the questions that I never asked. ~ Illusion of control but also freedom, fingers poised while what’s inchoate pools, then spills like water pummeled over rocks by its own weight, the way the caribou migration gets itself in gear, one or two slack amblers idling north, tugging the attention of the rest until the mass move across hills and streams takes hold. Meander never twice the same, hundreds of miles hoofed to cover twenty. So what if we end up exactly where we’ve been before, mouthing the same pastures? So what if freedom’s just a word to boost biology and happenstance, the fluke of one particular sperm chatting up an egg, genes that unloose language linked to those that will destroy it? Hands hesitate and the screen turns black, bezier curves invent themselves in shapes and colors evanescent as the acrobatics of a tongue that no one translates any more, in the moment just before the shift begins from possible to formed, droplets drumming toward the waterfall.
©2022 Penelope Moffet
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