Our empowering talismans from the past

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

My apartment harbors numerous family totems: for instance, a Roos cedar chest, one of my parents' wedding presents in 1949; my mom's Eastman Kodak Brownie Reflex (non-synchronized) camera from the early 1940s with viewfinder on top so the photographer had to look down to take a picture; and a "Vintage Remington Rand Model 5 Portable Typewriter" from the 1930s.

You can find such items for sale online, but I'm not interested in selling mine. 

Two venerable book sets also echo my childhood: The 1949 Childcraft series (wonderful artwork in "Storytelling and Other Poems"), the 1959 Random House Landmark series (I was particularly captivated by "The Swamp Fox," about Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, and "The Adventures of Ulysses," a retelling of the Odyssey), and my well-thumbed copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, which had a powerful impact as well. The books and sundry other keepsakes are displayed behind glass doors in my parents' china cabinet, which formerly anchored the front hall of the house at Elmwood and Jackson where I grew up.

My 3-year-old twin grandsons are a little young for the books, and the other items are only of passing interest, but they enjoy playing with the typewriter, which I have sitting out on a side table next to the couch. Loving the look of it, I've used it as part of my living room décor for years. Seemed appropriate for a writer.

It belonged to my maternal grandfather, Pat Mooney, a self-made man and larger-than-life figure, an almost exact contemporary of Ernest Hemingway, with whom he had some parallels. My Papa died (of cancer) in the early '60s, just two years after Papa Hemingway, who spent a lot of his adulthood hammering away on manual typewriters like this one. In 1940, about the time Ernie took up permanent residence in Cuba, my grandfather moved my mom and the rest of the family to Oak Park from Cicero, inaugurating our 77-year history in the village. 

The Remington 5 spent most of that history gathering dust until one afternoon last October, when I endured a particularly frustrating visit to the post office on Lake Street. I posted several bills in the mailbox on Kenilworth but noticed, as the envelopes slid down the chute just out of reach, that I hadn't stamped one of them.

Simple enough, I thought. One of the nice, service-minded postal workers inside probably wouldn't mind taking five minutes to walk outside with me, open the mailbox, and locate the unstamped envelope (which should be resting on top of the pile). I could then buy a stamp and mail it properly. The postal service wins, I win. 

Silly me. After 40 minutes of trying to get someone's attention (I embraced the challenge), explaining the situation to a supervisor in back who looked at me like I was some alien life form, and being generally stonewalled (to induce my departure no doubt), I chalked another one up to bureaucratic brain-deadness and returned home mumbling to myself.

Needing some small accomplishment to compensate for this unsatisfying encounter, I grabbed the Remington and drove over to Pieritz Office Supplies at Ridgeland and South Boulevard. If you haven't been there, you really should go. It's one of those businesses you swear can't possibly still exist in the 21st century (which is more a comment on the 21st century than on Pieritz). 

Whenever I go there, which isn't nearly often enough, the place feels Brigadoon-ish. I harbor an irrational suspicion that this storefront springs into existence only when I darken their doorway, and as soon as I leave, it vanishes into the mists of some Scottish Highland time warp.

Inside, the place looks like a manual typewriter museum, so I knew I was in the right place. Not quite believing it possible, I asked co-owner Deborah Pieritz if I could get an inked ribbon for my Remington 5 so my grandsons might see the letters of their names on paper when they pressed the keys. 

"Sure," she said, taking the typewriter, whose condition I apologized for. The next day, I picked it up and found it inked and dust-free (a minor miracle). She only charged me for the ribbon, restoring my faith in humanity and customer service.

I rolled a piece of paper under the platen, and the boys were thrilled to see this ancient mechanism actually function — though they still prefer releasing the carriage return and pressing as many keys as possible at the same time so the spindles stick together and have to be pulled back by hand.

Someday, maybe they'll appreciate this talisman of the past, this charm, this amulet, this thing capable of working wonders, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, this magical figure capable of benefiting its possessor.

Someday, they may possess such clan totems, or at least fondly recall them. And maybe they'll also read the Childcraft and Landmark books too.

Perhaps possession will benefit them as much as it still benefits me, reminding me of who I came from, how I got here, and how I came to be the person I am.

There is power in these otherwise inanimate objects. They are part of my personal "canon of beauty," a reminder of the richness of the life I have been given.

If nothing else, the Remington might help them remember that, once upon a time, there was a writer in the family.

And you never know, perhaps two writers … or even three.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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