A gift they gave me long ago

Lessons for life: A nun teaches me to type on an old Underwood
Lessons for life on an old Underwood

This is not a Christmas story exactly but it is about a gift that was given to me by three people and so it fits with the mood and the season of giving. The story involves a big black Underwood typewriter and the memory of that gleaming old monster was triggered this week when I saw an antique in a used bookstore in my city neighbourhood.

Farmers in town

I grew up in St. Benedict, Saskatchewan, a small prairie town with three wooden grain elevators and four streets – there was Railway Avenue and three streets running perpendicular to it. My parents were farmers who had moved into town but they kept some animals, mostly pigs, on their land just about a mile down the road. My father would drive out each day to work on the farm and to feed and water the animals.

When I was about 12 years old my dad came down with influenza in late fall, which kept him in bed for some time. He said to me, “If you do the chores, we’ll give you the money from one of the pigs when we sell them.”

Market pigs in those days sold for about $30, a fortune in my eyes, and immediately I imagined what I might buy. I read a lot of comic books and had a good collection which I kept in a sturdy cardboard box. The back page of those comics always presented a colourful display of items for sale. My favourites were a Shetland pony, a three-speed bicycle and a fishing rod.

On the job

I got right at the job. Every morning before school I would jog a mile or so to the farm, imagining that I was a rookie preparing for training camp with a National Hockey League team. I would feed and water the pigs and I had even picked mine out  – a rusty brownish one with black spots. I repeated the chore after school and was soon able to run all the way without stopping to walk or rest.

Before long my father was well again but he often asked me to help with the animals. He was circumspect when I asked if I could buy the Shetland pony with the money from my pig. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.” The sale occurred in spring when a snub-nosed, three-ton truck used for hauling livestock pulled into the farmyard and we loaded up our pigs. I had kept a close eye on mine and was less than pleased to know that she was destined for the killing floor of the meat packing plant in Saskatoon.

An old Underwood 

“When will I get my money?” I asked my dad. “Soon,” he said. “I was thinking,” he added, “that you should use that money to buy a typewriter.”

I was stunned. “A typewriter. Why?”

“Well if you learn to type you might get an office job and you won’t have to grub around in the dirt for a living the way we do.”  Then he held up his beefy and grease-stained hands for me to see. I don’t know what my father included in his full catalogue of office jobs but I do recall that teaching school was one of them. He used to say to me, “You should be a teacher. You work only six hours a day and get two months off in summer and you can wear a white shirt and tie to work.”

“So where would we even get a typewriter?” I asked. I had never seen one outside of the Credit Union office and the church rectory. “Well, your mother was talking to the nuns who teach in the school and they are trading in the old machines at their convent. They have some for sale for about $30.”

Oh great. My pig was going to fetch about that much for all of the work I had done and now they wanted me to spend it on a typewriter. “But I wanted a Shetland pony.”

“You could never buy a pony for $30,” my dad said, “and we couldn’t get it delivered. Those comic books that you read come from the States.”

“So how am I going to learn to type? I don’t know anything about typing.”

“Sister Berchmans said that if you buy the typewriter she’ll give you lessons after school.”

“Lessons? Just me, all by myself?”

“Yes, it’s better that way. You’ll learn faster.”

My parents held back all but a few dollars from the sale of my pig, and so it was that I took delivery of a used black Underwood typewriter. It had metal rings on the round letter keys, black typing ribbons and a bell that rang when the carriage reached the end of its track, at which point you grabbed a lever and shoved it back again. My Underwood weighed about 50 pounds (I have researched this) and I had to carry it from home to my school classroom once a week while balancing my typing workbook on top of the machine. Fortunately, we lived right across the street from the school.

Sister Berchmans

Sister Berchmans was an Ursuline nun and my teacher in grade six. She was waiting for me after school. She wore a long dark habit and her face, pale and soft, was pinched by the white starched material that formed an oval around her face and forehead and extended in a half moon down to her chest. I could have been downtown in the pool hall with some of my pals. It did not occur to me at the time that she might have had other things to do as well.

I placed the Underwood on a classroom table and she opened the instruction book. I was to keep my wrists straight with my fingers hovering above the keyboard. I was to keep my eye on the book with its lines of exercises and not look at the keys. I was to type each letter twice and then raise my hand. “A-A, rest, raise,” she said. “S-S, rest, raise.” The lesson went on for half an hour and she told me to practice on my own as well. Then I lugged the monster home to where my mother enforced my practice regimen although never very strictly. She also wanted me to get an office job.

Lessons for life

The lessons continued for months. Soon I was touch typing at about 30 words-per minute and I have used that skill for all of my adult life. I did eventually, as my father hoped, get an office job. In fact, I have had many of them but I would not say they were more useful than his work and my mother’s in growing food.

Sister Berchmans taught me to type although that may be the least of it. She was  one of the best classroom teachers I have ever had. Later, she left her religious order and was apparently happily married twice, outliving both of her husbands. She was at last report living a well-deserved retirement somewhere in the United States. I am immensely grateful to her and to my parents who are gone now for the gift they gave me long ago.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

18 thoughts on “A gift they gave me long ago”

  1. This reading brought tears to my eyes. A touching, sincere story.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  2. Beautiful story, Dennis! I’m so glad your career path led to ‘office jobs’. I see it as our win and the NHL’s loss (score: 1 – 0).

  3. Now Dennis, just where would that Shetland pony have carried you? (To Martha’s farm?!!!) A lovely tale – all the more because it seems to be true!

  4. Really enjoyed this story and the simple yet evocative way you wrote it. I read it as a Christmas story. It reminded me of a W.O. Mitchell story. Thanks for sharing it. I am forwarding it to Julia to enjoy.

    George Melnyk

      1. FYI
        I have photo’d cemetery at St. Ben. Google Saskatchewan Cemeteries Project. Thought you might find it interestingly! A poet once wrote “Rememder, whence you came!” You are one of those people Dennis! Hope I have not misused this site!

  5. For me, this is very much a Christmas story, full of mystery and tragedy and decisions and listening and soul-searching and hope – and it is so moving because it is true. Thank you, Dennis.

  6. Smart dad. You talked about that so many years ago. I remember Sister Adelaide being impressed with your writing in high school. I didn’t know that you likely typed your story. Thanks for the memories!

  7. I am so thankful that you received a typewriter ( I remember mine). It moved you from the farm to the world where we enjoy your many books and blogs and all the other contributions you make to Canada’s compassionate organizations. I especially enjoy the stories of growing up in Saskatchewan and the people who have been a part of that time.

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