My Own Set of Keys

Everything changed for my family during the terrible recession years in the 1980s, when Dad and thousands of other workers in the coal mining and steel industries of the rust belt received pink slips. Every night my parents watched the evening news with grim faces; American unemployment rates were always the top story. Many local plants closed their doors forever. Families lost their homes and migrated to other parts of the country in search of jobs.

One of my best memories happened during that time. Very early on Christmas morning, I woke my younger sister. She tried to muffle her coughing as we snuck downstairs. She took lots of expensive asthma and allergy pills.

Mom had warned us ahead of time that there wouldn’t be many presents because of Dad’s layoff, but my sister and I found several wrapped boxes under the tree. I plugged in the twinkling lights. The rule was that we had to wait until six o’clock to wake our parents but were allowed into our stockings. Mom stuffed them with chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, crispy Santa Claus chocolates, Hershey’s kisses, and books of Lifesaver candies. She also put in small gifts like pink nail polish for me and Matchbox cars for my sister. There was a plastic square box that you had to tilt in order to roll a tiny ball through the maze and into the hole. We whispered and played together under the colored lights of the Christmas tree.

At the right time, I started Mr. Coffee. We waited while the machine hissed and burped and dripped steaming brown coffee into the carafe. The smell was delicious.

“Get the milk,” I said.

I grabbed two mugs out of the drying rack beside the sink. My sister lugged the plastic gallon jug from the refrigerator and lifted it over her head to place it on the counter.

“Sugar,” I said.

She retrieved the glass bowl from the table. I measured two teaspoons into one of the mugs and added some milk. As soon as Mr. Coffee stopped gurgling, I poured both cups. Black for Dad, milk and sugar for Mom.

As we climbed the stairs, I walked as if balancing a book on top of my head. Our parents’ bedroom was at the top of the stairs. Mom’s side was closest to the door. We held the cup near her face on the pillow so the smell would wake her up. “What time is it?” she mumbled.

“Six.”

She groaned. I blew across the surface of the coffee so that the steam went toward her nose.

“There’s a heavy one under the tree with my name on the tag,” I said as if she didn’t know. I was twelve and knew all about Santa Claus but was supposed to be keeping the secret.

She smiled then, sat up, and took the mug from my hand. I went around and put Dad’s coffee on the night stand beside his pillow. “Dad!  Get up, it’s Christmas.”

Mom stood and pulled her terry-cloth robe over her tee-shirt. My sister and I dashed down the stairs again. We’d already decided which presents we wanted to open first and pulled them into the center of the floor. Our parents shuffled into the living room and sat at opposite ends of the couch. The scant hair on Dad’s balding head stood up every which way. Both of them lit cigarettes and squinted at the lights. An ash tray occupied the center cushion between them.

“Can we start, Mom?  Can we?”

“Go ahead.”

Mom wore a big smile on her face as I tore into the silver and blue wrapping paper. It was an electric typewriter! A Smith-Corona with black keys and a beige case. All the letters of the alphabet fanned out in a semi-circle of long metal arms just waiting for a surge of electricity to make them strike the ribbon with high force. Such a grown-up present. The weight of it. Something so expensive I never even thought to ask for one, especially this year. I stared open-mouthed.

Dad sipped his black coffee and smoked and stared at the carpet, but Mom looked right at me. She looked and really saw me and understood. This surprise gift made me feel special and deeply loved. Known. I understood how much she sacrificed to buy this typewriter: an even higher balance on those high-interest credit cards, dozens of extra double shifts at her job, peace of mind.

Smiling, she crawled down on the floor beside me and helped take the heavy machine out of its box. Together we removed the plastic packing that protected various moving parts, and then we plugged the cord into the wall. The typewriter began to hum. My heart began to hum, too, with the idea of all the new stories I’d create. I’d just started a new one called An Orphan’s Terror, in which Ginny and her brother are runaways from an orphanage. Then one day, Ginny returned from picking berries and her brother is missing. She realizes that she too is being followed and it all might end in bloody terror!!!

Today, all these years later, I can still think of that electric typewriter and the joy it gave me. What a wonderful gift. It has taken me far.