That autumn I was 20, my grandfather died.
A few months earlier, he had been diagnosed with cancer. He avoided doctors for most of his life, and in the end, it cost all of us. A routine colonoscopy could have nipped the cancer in the bud. But by the time his pain forced him to the doctor’s office, it was too late. “Weeks,” the doctor told my grandparents. “Maybe a couple months.”
My mother packed us all up to see her father one last time. We drove three hours across the Cascade Mountains to their 1950 ranch house on Fruitland Street. Every morning, we drank coffee and hot chocolate in their sunny dining room, swiping margarine onto the sweet rolls Grandma had baked, newspapers crinkling as my grandparents flipped through the local section.
Each afternoon, my grandparents dug through photos and mementos, setting aside things they wanted to give away. Neighbors and friends came to visit like they always had. The storm door banged behind them, and voices burst from the foyer. My grandfather had always been a loud man, a warm man, free with his stroke-crooked smile and full attention. Neighbors and old friends passed in and out of that house like it was the neighborhood coffee shop, my grandmother bringing them coffee as they shared the latest gossip about old high school classmates or asked my grandfather’s advice on the latest Ford or an unruly teenager. Mostly now, he sat in his recliner, too weak to stand, his cheeks hollowed out, his body so thin it frightened me. No one said anything about death. But it was everywhere around us, scattered on side tables and empty chairs and all across the plush brown carpet.
One day Grandma found a photograph of the two of them shortly after their wedding. She handed it off to him, and he looked at it for a long time. Finally, he handed it to me.
Fresh out of high school, they had smiled at the camera, round-cheeked and happy and younger than I was. Grandma had worn dark lipstick back then, her auburn hair tufted in Debbie Reynolds curls. My grandfather brooded at the camera, handsome with his deep-set eyes and James Dean white tee. But both of them had a weathered look behind their smiles, a look no one of my generation had ever had at 20. They had been born just before the stock market crashed and had come of age during the Depression. “You’re both so young,” I said in awe.
“Almost fifty-five years,” he said. The two of them looked at each other, and I saw tears in his eyes. His voice trembled. “And I still love her, honey.”
My grandmother quickly looked down at the album in her lap. My grandfather wiped his nose and gripped the arms of his recliner and looked out the window.
* * *
One afternoon, my grandfather got to his feet with a groan and hobbled across the living room towards his study. “Honey,” he said. “I got something for you.”
My brother stood, thinking my grandfather could only be speaking to him. But I was sure Grandpa had looked at me. So we both followed him into his study, a dusty spare room where the blinds were always drawn.
The room smelled of dusty carpet and ink and the dog hair that had never quite made it out of the room after their last dog. A broad, dark desk was covered with a blotter, a printing calculator with its roll of paper tape, and a typewriter. He had managed an auto repair shop for decades, and even after his retirement, he’d kept his office just as it was. His golf clubs stood in one corner. Rows of shelves hung from the wood paneled walls. I had often worried they would topple from the weight of his golfing mementos. He even had kept a ceramic coin bank with a golfer who looked like Archie, his head topped with one of those plaid caps that had a pom-pom fixed to the center. I found it ridiculous and had said so several times, but my grandfather loved it. Behind the closet doors, I knew half a dozen gray hoodies and pairs of jeans hung from plastic hangers.
Grandpa made it to the desk and set his hand on the typewriter. “I know it’s real old, honey, but—if you want it.”
“Really?” I squealed.
My brother turned and walked out of the room.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
My grandfather cracked a smile. “I don’t need it.”
“Oh my goodness, thank you!” I clapped my hands and hopped up and down. “I’ve always wanted a typewriter.”
Grandpa chuckled and patted his pockets the way he always did when he was pleased. It filled me with reassurance, the warm, throaty sound of his chuckle and the jingle of his coin-filled pockets. During grade school, I had spent a week with him each summer. Eating beets raw out of cans, we had sat across the kitchen table from each other and practiced our best puckered faces. At dusk when the heat of the day slipped into pleasant warmth, we sipped Pepsi on their back patio and watched squirrels scamper across telephone wires. He taught me how to whistle. He had been another father to me. A real father. Losing him was inconceivable.
Now, with his typewriter, I wouldn’t have to. Not completely. Every time I flip the switch, and the typewriter hums, Grandpa is still here.
“Quite the writer,” Grandma said once.
And Grandpa had winked at me. “She sure is.”
* * *
They set me up at their kitchen counter, Grandma and Grandpa showing me how to scroll in the paper, how to set my margins and line spacing, how to replace the typewriter ribbon. I flipped the switch for the first time, and it hummed to life, smelling of my grandfather’s office. I began typing my first story on it. A girl named Elsie from a trailer park off the Yakima River. Her father was abusive, so she set her sights beyond the trailer park, past the hills, on the highway that cut through their town and led somewhere else.
Grandma tiptoed over and stacked up cartons of typewriter ribbons, along with a handful of ballpoint pens from Grandpa’s desk. She showed me how to snap a match and hold the flame under the nib to get the ink running again. “He wanted you to have these, too,” she said. They were ugly, uncomfortable pens that nobody made anymore. But I loved them.
* * *
Things had been happening for me as a writer. In 2000, at age 19, I submitted a vignette to the Whidbey Island Writers’ Association and won a scholarship to their writing conference. Once there, I introduced myself to the literary agent who had funded my scholarship, and I chatted up the authors and organizers.
Then, in the summer of 2001, one of my English professors who worked as a faculty advisor on the college literary magazine invited me to apply for literary editor, and I promptly landed the position.
Later that August, I flew myself out to D.C. for a poetry conference where I entered one of my poems in a competition. I puked the entire flight, but I came back with a publishing contract for my first chapbook.
The gift of the typewriter from my grandfather was like a benediction. He had marked my entry into writerhood. I would move close to ten times in almost as many years, but I took his pens with me, and I always packed the typewriter. He had given me his blessing. I kept it with me everywhere I went.
Yes, things were happening for me.
And my father couldn’t help but notice.