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Kenneth Baker

Kenneth Baker

Honesty, kindness and loyalty came easily to my mother, but she had problems with accuracy.

Asked to describe someone she had met or something she had seen, she would brighten the facts with little exaggerations until her own eloquence dazzled her into stopping. Before her very limited audience - my father and me - she would turn into a diva of divagation, perhaps to fill the voids my father's reserve created. Though irked by this habit, I judged it less a failing than a sort of misspent generosity. At least she never had to give court testimony.

A hopeless compulsion to unravel her descriptive embroidery probably drove me to writing nonfiction. I still have to slap myself to remember that there is no such thing.

Just when I thought I had the knack of discerning useful information in my mother's fog of words, she threw me.

When I started college, she returned to secretarial work to help meet the expenses, after 20-odd years as a homemaker.

On my first visit home from my out-of-state alma mater, my mother and I talked about her new job.

Everything had changed since she got her certificate from the Katherine Gibbs School in Boston, which taught office skills. The new electric typewriters really got her going. She had never seen or even heard of anything like them.

"The carriage doesn't move!" she said. "Or I should say it only turns over, so you can spool the paper around it. The ribbon moves back and forth instead of the carriage. And instead of keys, the machine has this metal ball with all the letters and punctuation marks raised on its surface. When you work the keyboard, the ball jumps up and hits the paper with whatever letter you type, and jumps back, as fast as your fingers can move. It's just amazing!"

Who would have believed such a story in 1964? Not I. It's a good thing she didn't live to describe software.

A few months afterward I happened to see IBM's original Selectric typewriter in action for the first time. I recognized it instantly from my mother's description.

Of course, after that, I could never trust her all over again.

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