A lead talisman

The insight took me by surprise, as insights do. I was touring a quaint print shop filled with machinery made obsolete by the computers and phototypesetters of this ''quick print'' age.

I was familiar with the antique machines from my early years as a reporter and editor. I enjoyed again the smell of hot lead, the sound (sweep-sweep) of the presses. I was prepared for nostalgia -- but not for the distance it would take me or the way I would suddenly find the one fragile thread on which to string the disparate events of my life.

I was watching tiny, silver letters clink out of a monotype machine. The operator handed me a ''C.'' I rubbed the sharp shape of it atop a one-inch silver bar and tossed it lightly, feeling its weight. A pot of lead, zinc, tin, and antimony boiled beside the machine at 750 degrees F. To demonstrate the heat , the operator dipped a metal ruler into the silver liquid.

The ruler melted instantly -- and something melted in me. It was, for a moment, as if I had dived into that silver pot with the ruler and was swimming through the machines, to be punched out in letters spelling my childhood name. Then the letters would be arranged on a composing stick, pressed in ink, and printed on thick, white paper.

And I would hold up the paper with my name and say: ''See? That's me. That's me.''

My reverie drifted in a whiff of smoke from the bubbling silver liquid. I was remembering when I was four years old. I already knew how to read and write. I had learned from the tabloid my uncle brought home from the newspaper where he worked as a stereotyper. The ink was so fresh, it smeared as I traced letters and sounded out words.

My romance with type had begun. And if I couldn't be a stereotyper like my uncle, I would be the next best thing, a writer.

So I sat at the kitchen table and wrote my first story about the elves on the cereal box at my elbow. It was a messy, milk-stained manuscript, but the elves became very real to me. Soon I was winning essay contests in school.

But my zeal to write became fragmented when I found new loves. I was a drama major in college; then there was marriage, a child, a war. The writing got lost until I was stranded with my baby in an Army town when my soldier-husband was transferred. I watched the troop train chug away and wondered, terrified, where I would get $15 for a train ticket home.

My childhood dream rescued me. I wrote a story about being an Army wife. My hometown paper bought it. I had my first byline and the money for the train. I wrote a few more stories, but after the war, there was another child and many new roles in new places. I plunged into them so fully, I lost the writer until I suddenly had to make my own living.

Writing newspaper stories rescued me again. Ultimately, I was hired by the paper that printed my first stories, the one where my uncle worked, though he had retired. Still, it was sweet that we shared this common history.

In a few years, the back shop where he had worked was gone, replaced by a modern printing plant 20 miles away. The big barn of a room was suddenly empty and dark. A few of us used it as a jogging track during lunch hours, but it was too haunted, too sad, and we soon gave it up.

I liked the speedy computers. Keys marked ''erase'' wiped out unwanted words in an instant and keys marked ''move'' juggled type, making editing a joy.

But the silence instead of the clinks, clanks, and shudders of the old presses paralleled an emptiness that pervaded me in other ways. Soon I, too, was gone, to teach instead of write. Another fragmentation, I thought. Another role. Another me. Speaking words instead of writing them.

Suddenly, in that old-fashioned print shop I was visiting, I heard the unmistakable hiss of a handpress starting up. Memories evaporated. I fingered again the tiny silver bar with the letter on top, squeezing it as if to stamp it into my palm, to identify myself with it.

It was then, for the first time, that I saw the unity of my life. Not many roles; one role. Not fragments; wholeness.

If only I could have seen this along the way, if I could have known that whenever my imagination needed to be served or I needed solace or understanding -- or, yes, bread -- the words (ideas) would be there.

And what of the future? A grandson, 12, writes science fiction novels. We surmise that someday, it may only be necessary to ''think'' words to beam them throughout the universe. After all, we ask each other, what are words? They are not reality. They are only reflections of ideas which might come close (but never close enough) to what is . . . and shall be.

We laugh.

And I finger the little silver bar with the letter on top -- my talisman of continuity -- and marvel.

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