Pieces of childhood memories move in and out of our lives, sometimes evoking apprehension instead of security; how can a desk be one of those fragments for me?
Stretched out on the double bed with spreading papers touching a tufted velvet headboard, my father did ‘the books’. Stock transactions, checkbook balancing, bill paying, insurance changes, and so forth, clung to the coarse threads of the chenille bedspread. He leaned over to get the best illumination from the bedside table lamp, arching his back in an awkward position.
I’d interrupt and plop on the small amount of space not covered with his work, and the force of my body would cause papers to scatter. I didn’t think what he was doing was important and it looked like fun making piles and piles of printed matter. He smelled good, and the room carried his characteristic aftershave lotion while he was in it. My mother’s scent was fragrant and flowery and different.
‘What are you doing’ was my statement rather than a question. I wasn’t trying to snoop, nor did I really care to understand; I just liked making my presence known at any time I felt like it, and usually had the urge when a parent was preoccupied with his or her own business.
My red maple desk was efficient, sturdy, spacious. I’d guessed my father didn’t have a writing table because he liked leaning on bedspreads and playing with envelopes. Since I used the mahogany dining room table for cutting out dress patterns, and large art projects, I knew he could have done ‘his books’ on that space. He also could then listen to the radio built into the side of the false fireplace since the living room was nearby.
When I started high school, a textured black Remington portable typewriter took up a large portion of the right side of my maple desk. It wasn’t easy to take a typing course when my academic load was pre-college rather than working toward a general diploma. I skipped study hall to learn the keyboard skills. My father didn’t have a typewriter and still sorted mail on his sleeping furniture. A sewing machine was added to the master bedroom, fitting between the area made by a dormer window; so I knew he liked using a mattress better, for a desk certainly could have been put in the alcove.
Sometimes I let my mother borrow my heavy typewriter but forced her to lug it downstairs to the dinette table. Everything in MY room was for my use only! But everything else in the house was for my use also. Parents are supposed to be pliable, available, unselfish, and totally understanding at all times. I continued to push papers over to make room for myself whenever I noticed my dad’s absence due to ‘book work’.
On a weekend home from college, I heard my father tell my mother he really wanted a desk with drawers. My mother suggested making him a study out of a bedroom now unoccupied since my sister had gotten married. Was he joyous? Had he really hated being hunched up on the linty spread, reaching for the stocks to sell vs. the ones to keep? Had it been burdensome to balance monthly statements and do the necessary arithmetic using his knees to hold the pad while his fountain pen scribbled numbers? Was my childhood interruption really an intrusion?
My mother busied herself with needlepointing a seat to cover a chair for the eventual desk. She had walls painted a soft grey, and carpeting of crimson wool laid over the oak floor of my sister’s vacant room. She handmade drapes, then had the tapes on the wooden venetian blinds changed to match her new color. My sense of “I”, with young adulthood, was noticing “they” and my parents were really people with separate, but sometimes suppressed, needs. He had wanted a desk!
The walnut gift arrived. Its shape was somewhat oval and softened corners seemed elegant. Its top was inlaid with leather bordered by gold design. The kneehole was ample but had a center drawer as well as ones going down both sides; the pulls were bronze handles. My room’s desk was a functional rectangle with drawers that had maple knobs to grip for opening; this was stately. I looked at the bookshelves built into the back of this writing unit and was impressed by the creative style. My father’s eyes filled with tears when he ran his fingers along the leather; when he smiled, some dripped into his dimples. I held back a grin, which he noticed from my funny pursing of lips.
Whatever I seemed to want or need, he sensed and provided for, yet only now did I realize what he gave up in order to have money to give his family. No trophy could have been more wonderful than, at age 45, having such a beautiful desk.
On the brocade couch in the living room, he clutched his chest feeling anxiety and pain. My mother cradled his head with soothing and encouraging words after the doctor left muttering ‘indigestion’. Moments later, his heart ceased to beat.
I opened those walnut drawers that he had never filled with papers. I played with the bronze handles, letting them go up and flop back, forcing a snapping sound. Tears poured from my eyes and no dimples caught any in tiny wells.
When my mother moved into an apartment, she asked me if I wanted the desk and chair for my own home. I loved and hated that walnut item. Her needlework would last for generations, I knew, but that oval chair seemed to be linked forever to the desk. I shook my head, no; my hair moved with the violence of my gesture. I was angry, not at the offer but at the injustice. How could I take it and be reminded of the unused; how could I not take it and allow my mother to see a charity haul it off with her other belongings? “Give it to charity,” I whispered to my bewildered mother who probably saw my pain rather than my seeming indifference.
I haven’t made peace with the desk and the dying. Each time I get something special that I’ve truly wanted, I get afraid that ‘something will happen’. A foreboding forms a shadow that vanishes only when time passes. Since that desk has haunted my emotional space, I’ve regretted not making my mother feel more comfortable knowing it would be used, and accepting it. Did I think that a truck carting it to an uncertain destination would obliterate its message?
My obsolete, black, noisy, cumbersome typewriter had been saved and sat on a shelf in my basement until I donated it to a museum. I passed my fingers over its suitcase-like container, before giving it to the curator, remembering my father’s scent and ‘book work’ on his bed, perhaps to provide me with such a writing machine.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Palo Alto Review.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/photos/memorabilia are in major museums, including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.