MY GRANDPA'S SECRET ROOM
I was 10 years old when this story took place.
Grandpa opened the door that led upstairs to the attic. No one was allowed past this door, well, at least not my sister and I. We had to have permission from Grandpa. To many times I had watched him open the door, climb a few steps, lean back and close the door behind him. All that was visible was the stairwell. Strange mechanical noises had sifted down through the wooden floor, capturing my imagination and curiosity. I longed to see what kept him busy upstairs for so many hours. Later he would reappear at the bottom of the steps, open and close the door once again, and return to the quiet of his bedroom.
He was slender, small in stature and always wore suspenders. Behind his wire rim glasses were his gentle eyes and strong jaw. His trademark was his transparent green visor, which held back his thick white hair. Age had rounded his shoulders and put wrinkles on his face but his mind was keen. Born in 1878, his world had existed as a sign painter, machinist and through the years he had developed his talent for watercolors and cartooning. He wore his years, in his late 70's, with a touch of privacy, kindness of heart and a knowingness that only age could create. His lifeís mistakes had come and gone. His years had brought him physical limitations but the artist within, knew no limitations at all. He was devoted to excellence and took life very seriously. I was ten years old and wanted to be allowed to see the mysteries that lay upstairs in the attic.
One December day he invited me to go upstairs and see his special room. The door that had been my barrier now swung open freely. He pulled the string that lead form the bottom of the stairwell to the ceiling light above the landing. He asked me to close the door behind me. I sparkled at my chore. I followed his silhouette up the slender stairwell. The steep steps slowed his climb but not my eagerness. The top of the stairs was at the end of the first room. The opening that was necessary for the stairs, swallowed the center of this room and left only a five foot walkway between the wall and the railing. The slanted pitch of the roof cut through the side walls and ceiling leaving just enough headroom to walk under. The wooden floor creaked with each step. I was all smiles.
The silence was broken by the words, " Donít touch anything unless you ask."
Through the years the attic had been broken up into three separate rooms. There was one room around the stairwell, a smaller middle room for storage and then his work room. There was no great rush in his walk. Time would wait for him, but I wasnít sure I could wait. At the end of the first room was a door in the middle of the wall. He opened the door and held it in place with a wooden vase. Cool air rushed in from the small middle room. Inside this room, an assortment of boxes were stacked on the right side and on the left were book cases that held stories long read and enjoyed. I was making the creaking noise on the floor. I was entering the mysterious room. Grandpa opened the last door and headed for an over head light. He had done this so many times before. A window, with southern exposure, was at the end of the long room. It was the only source of natural light. He cris -crossed the room turning on various lights. Section by section the blackness transformed into haunting shapes. The house was built in 1906 and the room reflected the oldness of the house. Down stairs had been painted and altered over the years, but not this room. The room was true to its time.
Years ago Grandpa had wall papered the ceiling using 1939 newspapers and jokes he had enjoyed. It was the old looking at the old. Here was the history of a manís passion hidden in the brown shadows. I saw it all yet I saw nothing. My ten year old mind was trying to focus, to name items but the excitement was over powering. Grandpa reached down and turned on the floor heater. It rattled in an effort to shake off the chill. As I entered I had noticed several hand-made shelves filled with items saved for a needed day. One section held boxes of paper of various sizes and colors. Grandpa noticed my interest and began showing me all the different assortments. From the marbled finish to the shiny surfaces, the paper tugged at my artistic mind. A home-made drying rack was an island in a sea of wooden floor. Old projects were in different pocket through out the room waited for his attention. An overhead single light, with a its own visor, spot-lit the main work table adjacent to the left wall. The top of the table was cluttered in an organized manor. I wanted to touch. A red ball full of string was suspended from the ceiling while rulers, triangles, and scissors, hung from a shelf above the table. Paint brushes, watercolor paints and containers waited for him to do his craft. Below the table was a wire waste basket over flowing with his mistakes. All the space had been utilized, filled with dreams either past or present.
Next to the work table, in the quiet of this room, an object that was hard, cold and black stood silent. I walked towards it, eyes wide to view the knobs, the rollers, and the circular plate. Before me was a hand operated printing press. It was one of the reason for all the supplies. It was why I had asked to come up here. To a child just ten this beautiful object was magic. I had seen the results in his home-made Christmas cards, invitations, and the announcement for his church. Next to the printing press was a cabinet with thin drawers full of fonts of many sizes and styles. The drawers held spacers, punctuation marks, and stamps with small designs engraved in them.
He pulled his antique swivel chair up to the long work table. He was still silent. This was his world and I was the intruder. He placed his ink stained printers apron over his head and then tied the sash behind his back. With his quiet soft words he began to explained how the printing press worked.
A week ago he had designed the Christmas card that would eventually transform an ordinary piece of paper into a memory. Most of the Christmas cards were of cartoons of himself or of the family. Poetry, written by him, would also be included. There was five main steps to making a Christmas card: design the card, carve the design into a linoleum block, set up the type-set of the words on the card to be printed, print the cards and finally paint the design using watercolors. The carving of the linoleum block and type-set had to be done in reverse so when it was printed on the paper, the design would match the original.
When he carved the linoleum block he could not make any mistakes. It was slow and tedious work but Grandpa thrived on tedium. Today he was printing the design off of the linoleum block that he had carved a few days back. The paper to be used for the Christmas card was positioned next to the printing press. Grandpa squeezed black ink on a separate roller and rolled it evenly across a round flat cylinder above the printing press. The linoleum block was fastened across from the slot that held the cut stock paper that would receive the ink design. He placed the paper into the holding clips. He would print several test runs to assure his positioning of the paper. Now it was time for the magic. Grandpa once again like so many times before, reached forward and grabbed the black bar. There was a clunk, clunk noise as he pushed and pulled the bar causing the double rollers to collect fresh ink from above and move down across the linoleum block. Then the block would be forced against the paper creating the Christmas design. When the bar was returned to its original position, the newly printed impression was retrieved and placed on the drying rack. This was the noise that had captured my mind. Now I could see what was really happening. The printer spoke with beauty, what rhythm, like a heart beat.
He liked his Christmas cards embossed, which gave the ink a raised effect. To emboss the design on the paper he needed to print the design and while the ink was still wet, he sprinkled on a special powder. The excess was shaken off and then the card was hold over a small hot plate until the heat created a chemical reaction forcing the ink to rise. Grandpa said the powder was magical and I thought so too. He then placed the card on the drying rack. If he needed 50 cards, he did this fifty times. Over and over again when he pulled the lever down it ran the inked roller across the carved design. Over and over again when the inked block pressed against the chosen paper a printed design would emerge.
The process of making the cards took many visits to the attic. The next time that he felt up to it, he would again return to his room to do the next step of printing the words. Sitting in a chair, he would pulled out several thin drawer that contained the right size of type-set he wanted to use. Years of setting type had brought a knowingness to this chore. His hand moved swiftly spelling the words backward, adding spacers when needed and designing where the type set would fall on the page. When he was finished, he would enclose the typeset in a frame and secured it into the printing press. Ink was again added to the round plate and another process of printing each one, would fill that day with activity. If he wanted the words embossed like the craved design, then the hot plate was brought to service and which added more time to his chore.
When he painted his Christmas cards, the painting was done like a assembly line. One color was chosen and each card was painted that one color. Then the next color was chosen and the same process was repeated. Through this whole operation the cards were scattered thought-out the room waiting for the next step.
After Grandpa had explained the workings of the printing press, not much more was said. He was a man of few words. To watch him create his craft, to demand from himself and his tools the precision of who he was, filled my heart with joy. This was his room. Downstairs he was Grandpa but up here he was an artist. I donít think he liked the modern world in his last ten years. I think he liked the old world with its simplicity and honesty. In his special room he could go back in time as he created his designs, printed out cards or invitations and reminisce through his belongings of journeyís long spent.
Time caught up with us on that wondrous afternoon and dinner was in order. My heart was floating on the days events of sharing and exploration. As he took his apron off and hung it up for another day, I thanked him for all that he had shared with me. Gently he walked across the creaky floor, opened each box of paper and quietly with the up most care, took out a few pieces of each. He handed them to me and told me to do with them as I wish. Now I could be an artist too. Then one by one the lights where turned off and the darkness returned to the room. The doors between the rooms were closed and I retreated down the steps, to open the door and close it again. This time I went to my bedroom. As time passed I was allowed to go to the attic more often. One year he let me paint on the Christmas cards. The color was white and all I had to do was stay in the raised lines.
Not only did he do Christmas card, but he would use watercolors to paint pictures on the front of envelopes with all kinds of subjects ranging from cartoon characters of himself to beautiful floral or scenery. Each was a miniature painting. If you received a letter from him, he would paint you an envelope as well.
I have a special room now too, not with the personality and charm of his, but itís my art room. I have it full of oils, books, and future and past projects. My walls are covered with my dreams. I too go to my room to create. Lately though my projects have been created on my computer. Thatís where my magic hides these days. The thing about the written word is that it allows me to close my eyes and be ten, in attic with Grandpa at any time. I think I will go find some colored paper of different sizes.
May this story bring back memories of the joy of sharing. We all have a moment locked in time that is a perfect moment, without flaws, laced in love and set forever in our hearts. Time, pain, sorrow can not dislodge that moment. It is free and owned by just ourselves. I hope this memory of mine will inspire you to reflect to your joyous memories in your childhood. The magic of love is free. Grandpa opened his world and opened a door within me. He showed me the joy of bringing something new and delightful into someone else life. So now I follow in that tradition by sharing with you this story.
Merry Christmas to you and all the love you can endure.