Thursday, May 01, 2008

No Country for an Old Man

I pushed open the heavy wooden door and heard the familiar bell chime overhead. Even after all these years, the print shop smelled the same, of machinery, paper, ink and days long past.

“Any new business?” Papa asked.

“Nope. Sent Don home ‘bout an hour ago, told him to take the rest of the day off,” replied his 85-year old assistant. What Helen lacks in hair and teeth, she more than makes up for with her spunky personality. She’s worked for my grandpa almost since he opened the Bartlesville Print Shop in 1980, and still uses a hand-cranked adding machine.
Before Mamaw had her first fall two years ago, she had been grandpa’s bookkeeper, and had even begun keeping records and payroll organized on her home computer. When Papa recently suggested to Helen that he could bring the computer down to the shop, she almost had a fit. “What would I do with one of those? I never used one before in my life!”

The walls of the shop are still plastered with family pictures, community awards, and assorted signs yellowed by age, like the one stating, “This is a respectable establishment. Please act accordingly.” Or “No Smoking. We’d like to die of Natural Causes.” (My favorite sign says, “If you act cross, irritable, or just plain grumpy, there will be a $10 fee for putting up with you.”)

Peering past that wall, I look into the actual printing room. I remember having gone in when I was little, barely tall enough to see over the tall tables, clamping my hands over my ears to shut out the sounds of three or four massive machines running simultaneously. Today the dark interior lay quiet, with one machine left against the right wall. Five small printing orders lay on a table next to the doorway, with their handwritten invoices indicating they are waiting to be picked up. One of them is dated December 2007.

In many ways, the print shop is a picture of it’s owner—a symbol of the American dream, boasting of a time that was much less complex, and proud to remain unchanged, despite being a bit rundown.

As we drive through town, I see several abandoned downtown shops, as well as residences which will soon be bulldozed to make way for a parking lot. What had once been a booming oil town with two tall office buildings (one a decidedly functional modern style and the other postmodern, with superbly understated ornamentation), has now become a place for old-timers to sit in a diner and reminisce over endless cups of black coffee.

Like Papa. He often comments on how this driver shouldn’t have pulled out in that way, nor does he understand the hesitancy of other drivers to go ahead at a 4-way stop when he was still creeping forward. And he points out each time we saw a car with a license plate declaring the driver to be part of the Cherokee Nation. Times have changed since his family moved to town from Kentucky when he was a young boy. His parents’ store and home have long since been leveled, and his bride of 39 years has just died, leaving him to fend for himself in this strange new world.

But my grandpa has changed, too. The shirts he wears now have stains. He goes out to eat, whether in someone’s home or at a restaurant for nearly every meal, because he never had to learn to cook when Mamaw was around. His voice is softer, more melancholic, and while he still teases his grandchildren, the usual twinkle in his eye is now missing.

And I have no idea how life in this brave new world could be so foreign, leaving one feeling cast off, ignored and forgotten.

“Hey, sugar, you know? Growing old ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
I know, Papa; I know.


Lindsay Marie said...

That's awesome. I'm glad you got to see your grandpa. He looks super cute!

Jen said...

I liked this post a lot. My grandma passed away yesterday and reading this I had only hoped I had gotten the chance to meet her in person. We talked on the phone a lot and my dad always spoke very highly of her but I never knew her. Nice post.