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A desk apart

By Margaret Hope Bacon / April 24, 1986



I am not usually sentimental about furniture, but ever since I said farewell to my old blue desk I have been grieving. Its substitute, a shiny new multilevel affair on which sits my word processor, was built by my husband; it is handsome and works well. But will the muse visit me here as it did when I was hunched over the old blue desk? I am uneasy. The desk wasn't blue to begin with. It was unfinished pine, and we lovingly applied a coat of linseed oil to the raw wood, believing we would eventually create a patina. This was in the late 1940s, and we were furnishing our first apartment, resolved that we would have nothing but ``modern'' furniture; all light woods and simple lines. Mostly we redid secondhand pieces. The desk was our very first purchase. We set it proudly in the center of our living room.

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The linseed oil surface collected dust rapidly. I struggled to polish it once a week, while I pecked away on my Corona portable on poems and articles relating to the joys and sorrows of having three children in rapid succession. I soon discovered I could write only at night; otherwise, I had small people sitting on my lap, wanting to pound the keys. We moved and moved again. The desk continued to sit in the living room, but it had turned rather gray. We sanded it down and gave it a coat of satin varnish.

It was the middle '50s and I was involved in local politics and in fighting local McCarthyism. Three towheads followed me as I went from door to door with my petitions. I wrote letters to the editor at my desk, and occasionally an editorial. Some editors seemed to like my passionate views. On the strength of that encouragement, plus a new job for my husband, we decided to build a new house.

For the first time, there was room for the desk in our bedroom. It was definitely gray again, and we sanded it down and slapped on a heavy coat of spar varnish. The children were beginning school, and I had time in the mornings to sit staring out from my desk across the yard to the stream. My production increased vastly. I began to publish a lot of short pieces. But none of it was very lucrative; I turned to journalism and a column in one of the city's newspapers.

Once more we moved, this time to a larger, older house, near the private high school we wanted our children to attend. The desk came with us and helped to fill some of the space in our mammoth master bedroom. We still had nothing but old furniture; we decided to paint it all a nice shade of cupboard blue. I got a job in public relations to help pay for all the tuition and learned to use an electric typewriter. When the children went off to college, I found I had time for children's books. The first four were all written at the old desk while it was cupboard blue.

The children, meanwhile, had all left home. The big house became a museum for the storage of the relics of a family group that had expanded to the far corners of the nation. It was depressing. We sold it and moved to a small house in the center of the city, from which we could walk to the orchestra or to work.

Though the city house was tiny, there was room for my very own study for the very first time. We installed the old desk and painted it a darker blue, to hide the cracks. I was still working but there was more time for writing now; four adult books and some short stories were the result. I dared to announce to the IRS that I was a writer, and that this little room was set aside for the purpose of creative enterprise.

The desk files were crammed with the accumulation of almost 40 years; poems written at moments of hope and despair; special cards and letters from my children, and now, grandchildren; lost paperclips. The drawers were heavy and the paint was chipped, revealing the various layers of color, like the strata in rock.

Still, I don't think I would ever have dreamed of parting with that desk if I hadn't become involved with a word processor. I fell in love with one at the office, and when I retired to devote myself to more writing, I decided I must have one at home. The old desk would have to go.

It didn't go far. My husband decided to take it for his study, up a flight of stairs. I cleaned it out for the trip, finding all sorts of memorabilia in the process; my baggage checks for my first trip to China; a proposal for a magazine article of which I have absolutely no recollection, two or three daily journals I began and never kept up, lists of articles and stories I was always going to write.

The lists remind me of the endless struggle with the muse; the moments when one's stock of ideas seems exhausted; the moments of exhilaration when the tide flows back in. For almost 40 years those moments occurred when I was sitting at the old blue desk. Will renewal come again in front of an electronic screen? A friend of mine says he has discovered that when he uses modern technology, his fingers outrun his soul. If I am henceforth so speedy that the muse cannot catch up with me, then the abandoned desk will have its revenge. I hope not.