While growing up, there were only two things I remember wanting more than a chocolate malt from the Dairy Queen: the first was a dictionary, which I asked my grandmother for when I was about 14 and got that very Christmas, and the other was a typewriter, which my father refused to give me until I learned to do handwriting properly. I never really mastered the handwriting commission for even today I switch from tilted to the right, to upright, to tilted to the left with barely a twist of the wrist and sometimes halfway through a note or letter. I tried though… to get the typewriter, I mean, not to write with the perfect Palmer which I knew in my heart would never be half as useful as learning to type. I pleaded, I looked up secondhand typewriter ads, cut them out and left them on my father’s desk; I found the stores that sold them and suggested visiting them instead of going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon, and then I pleaded some more. I guess I must have insisted soooo much, that finally, one Christmas when I was around sixteen, I got a typewriter and I loved my first typewriter just as much as I loved my first dictionary.
The dictionary was a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in one volume with a greyish-greenish-blueish dustcover, and print one could read without glasses. Of course, at that age I could read any print without glasses. Now, to read the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and Seven Language Dictionary in three volumes that I acquired in the ‘80s when I gave the previous one to my son as he left for college, I need my glasses and a magnifying glass. But back then, anything was possible and a book –a Dictionary!- was an object to be treasured.
I can still remember the fascination of opening to any page and reading down the wealth of words appearing, one after another, the length of it, and seeing how each one had such a different and magical meaning: ivy, ivybells, ivyberry, ixodes, ixora, izar, jab, jabali, jabarite, jabber, jabberwocky… ohhh, the Jabberwocky, the discovery that words could be not only in the dictionary but also in one’s most senseless fantasy:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Oh, what magic! Having discovered this, and having fallen hopelessly under the spell of words in print, and as I had no idea that most of the texts I read sprang from handwritten manuscripts (I would discover that later upon realizing that I couldn’t write directly on the typewriter but had to use a notebook first), I needed the instrument to produce these tiny miracles: a typewriter!
My first typewriter, which appeared the Christmas of 1958 beautifully wrapped, wasn’t very big; as a matter of fact, it was tiny and suited its name to a T: “Hermes Baby” which, according to mytypewriter.com “is the Mini Cooper of typewriters!”, and if you have ever had a Mini Cooper –as I have- you know what that means. Mytypewriter.com waxes on: “The totally appealing Hermes Baby gained instant success since its introduction and garnered a loyal following among stylish writers of the day. Clean and sporty, it is manufactured with the highest degree of quality, including the precision Swiss engineering that one would expect from a Swiss watch”.
It was a dream of a typewriter. It weighed less than 2 kilos and was easily carried anywhere with its metallic cover: to school, on the train, in the bathroom, to bed, to the dining table, on a picnic… it was an aspiring writer’s dream; when first introduced in 1935 it was said to have become the ‘must have’ typewriter for novelists, celebrities, reporters and journalists. It was sleek and weightless. It was reputed to be the typewriter of choice for Ernest Hemingway. What more could a girl want! I was ecstatic. The Hermes Baby accompanied me and wrote for me right up to the time I finally gave in and bought my first computer around 1990. Even though I had acquired earlier an electric typewriter for my desktop when this became available, the Hermes was my ‘laptop’ and went with me on all my travels. It trudged off to boarding school with me and on it I wrote all the letters to my parents, my grandmother and the usual adolescent boyfriends, and every one of my school papers. My first, and only, very bad poetry was composed with its tiny letters and on it I slavered the long, very gooey missives I’d send to the man who would be my husband. True: it did not make me a well-known, very good or prolific writer, but it was the best of friends for a very long time. Today I have no idea where it went, whether I sold it during one of my get-rid-of-everything-and-move moves, or it just got lost along the path to the future that we all take at every moment. Fortunately now there is Internet, so that the images and the history of this little jewel are well recorded by typewriter-gooks galore and I can become all limp and nostalgic remembering its faithful journeys with me, the things I wrote on it and the time when my friend, Gutierre Tibon (originally Gautier Thiében in Italy before he moved to Mexico and Hispanicized his name), told me he was its inventor. As I discovered today from Internet, he twisted the truth a bit: he was not the inventor –that was a man called Guiseppe Prezioso whose last name in Spanish means ‘precious’ and also ‘beautiful’ both applicable to his invention. But Gutierre was responsible for naming it “The Hermes Baby” and for popularizing it on the US market. He was also a fantastic human being, a prolific writer publishing over 46 volumes of research and essays, a fellow lover of language, and a survivor who lived to the age of 94 accompanied by his then wife, who was over 30 years younger, and I was lucky to call him my friend. But this is material for another piece.
Back to the typewriter and what inspired me to write this piece, jogging my memory and awakening a gentle nostalgia for times past, and a certain admiration for the girl I was. It was an article in Time magazine on a book entitled Spinster written by someone named Kate Bolick. At the top of the page where the article appeared, there was a little blurb, and I quote: “According to Bolick, part of what brought women out of a marriage-and-children mentality was the typewriter, invented in1867”. Upon reading this, I was immediately submerged in the deep waters of reverie to that magical and terribly painful time of adolescence when I dreamed briefly of becoming a writer, when my passionate desires were for a dictionary and a typewriter, for paper and poetry over and above clothes or jewels or frills and fancies, before the marriage-and-children mentality totally enveloped me and I married and had children and attempted to become the perfect housewife and mother. Before all that, there was the dictionary and the typewriter, Webster’s and the Hermes Baby, both swallowed up and temporarily forgotten by the-things-a-girl-is-supposed-to-do. They waited patiently in the background of dinners-for-two and diapers, of supermarket days and children’s first steps, of housework and love-making until I did a radical about-face at 32 that returned me to the University and the wonderful, wonderful world of words.
True, I have not been a prolific writer, but I complain not. I love to have written, and to have loved, to have been a mother and a writer all at once, to have fulfilled my duty to my body and society and also to my spirit and freedom. So there it is, so bright and beautiful, mixed in with the memory of my babies, the grateful remembrance of my Hermes Baby and a Webster’s Dictionary that filled my life with words and let me eventually produce the books I can also proudly call ‘my children’.
One thought on “DICTIONARIES, TYPEWRITERS AND FREEDOM”
You just keep on bearing the sweetest fruit.