Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Substance of things Past: What's Found Between the Spines

I was remiss in posting "Nostalgia Thursday" last week, as my last four weeks in Pittsburgh are turning into frenzy and friends and too much packing left to do. I'm up way early this morning, unable to sleep past 4:00 AM. My Rosie dog squints at me from her "cave" beneath my dining room table, confused as to why I've turned on the lamp and disturbed her beauty rest. I figured, rather than toss and turn this morning, I'd write about the treasures I've been excavating from between the spines of my hundreds of books.

Between the Spines
A confession: I am a girl who likes to hide things--photos, leaves, pressed flowers, letters, cartoons, postcards, you name it-- within books. I'm not sure when or why this all began, but, I've carried on with this personal tradition for a long time. It means that during times of upheaval, when bookshelves get overhauled and scrutinized for what dear old friends will stay on the course with me and what dear old spines will be pulled and sold to Halfprice Books or Caliban Bookstore or given to friends, I first need to flick through the pages to make sure I'm also not giving away a little extra piece of my past. This makes the packing up of floor to ceiling bookcases a little more time consuming, but it also becomes an archeological dig of sorts--and oh, the gems that fall out from between pages!

My long-time friend, Barbara, came over on Saturday night. Between eating Thai food and conversation, we boxed up a few smaller bookshelves and worked our way halfway down the larger shelves. At one point, she pulled out an envelope from between two books and handed it to me. It was addressed to my son; the handwriting was my mother's and the postdate on it was June 28, 1991. B. would have been 11 years old at the time. And what a point in my family's history this 5 paragraph letter captured!

As soon as I unfolded the typing paper and saw those familiar typos and white-outs and scratch outs on the sheet, I knew my father had typed this letter, already years into his Parkinson's Disease and on the brink of losing all ability to use his hands. Which is why my mother had addressed the envelope. What makes this especially poignant to me is that my son, the first grandchild, was the only grandchild to have any memories of my father still walking, talking and writing letters. My father's descent into Parkinson's was awful, fast and took away everything he was.

The letter was quintessentially my father's work, though--a mix of sentiment: "I am delighted to receive your Father's Day card with the photo of you in your baseball uniform. You look really good." Humor: "How many of your cards could you trade for any of the Pirates cards?" Cautionary admonitions: "When you come visit us down on Long Beach Island, make sure to get in the habit of using Sunscreen Protection factor 15 or 25. You have that Irish fair skin we've all inherited." And a lovely little story tucked into the PS. My son's bicycle had been stolen just the weeks prior to my father typing this letter. My father wrote: "I was very sorry to hear your bike was stolen. I'm afraid that that has gone on forever--even when I was young. My bicycle, though, was so battered that they'd bring it back after they attempted to ride it. I only owned one bike my whole childhood." His "Love, Grandpa" is handwritten, smudged by a dragged hand. I can picture how badly my father's hands shook at that time and what control he must have exerted to sign this letter. I can't wait to give this gem to my son next week when he comes to visit.

In addition to this beautiful piece of history, I found, tucked into Mary Oliver's White Pines, an "in the moment" poem I'd written 2 years after my brother died. I stopped writing for a full yearn after Brendan died, sure that language was meaningless, lint in the pocket, why had I pursued poetry for so long? It was my friend, Jeff, at the time, who brought me back to writing. We were riding the 61-C from Oakland to Squirrel Hill, and he presented me with the back of a postcard on which he'd written "The man in front of us looks like a wolf." This made me laugh and he encouraged me to write the next silly line, an observation of the people on our bus. I did so. We traded the card back and forth, put a stamp on it and mailed it to our friend, Liz, when we got off in Squirrel Hill. Jeff's small, kind act gradually enabled me to write again. A piece of paper was daunting to me at the time, but the back of a postcard was just small enough to encourage my forays into language again. --This grew into a year of my writing postcard, "in the moment" poems to my sister in NY.

On this particular card (in which a cartoon woman is thinking "I'm so silly, I forgot to have my mid-life crisis"), I was writing a contemplation about my new German Shepherd puppy, Buddha, who had apparently just chewed up a telephone wire, the leg of a stool and half of my philodendron. The "poem" moves quickly into a deeper place: "Why am I so afraid of the commitment that comes with love?/It is a gift, heavy in my arms/ a baby nestled against my shoulder wailing/ a language without words/ and now a new puppy looking to me for safety, food, sustenance/ I feel unworthy to the task./Buddha tugs on his blue leash, contemplates a pigeon/ puts one bear like paw in front of the other/decides to follow me anyway."

Other books turned up:
  • photos of me in my late 20's, clowning around with my sister Maureen.
  • A handmade Christmas card I'd written in 1988 to R., the love of my life, the first year we lived together. " I'm so happy to share this Christmas with you. Love, love, love..."
  • A photo of my son, around three years old, smiling up from the middle of a pile of gold leaves.
  • a small painting I'd made of a red-headed woodpecker, during one of my off again on again relationships with watercolors, acrylics and paintbrushes over the years. ( I am a frustrated, wanna-be painter who can't really paint at all, but loves working with the colors.)
  • The thick Children's Treasury of Literature book I'd saved from my son's childhood, revealed a birthday "gift certificate" that my son had drawn for me in early middle school, complete with a funny cartoon of a lobster with a beret on his head. This I could "cash in" for a "free" breakfast in bed--Cheerios or French Toast. (And no expiration date. Perhaps I could still redeem it?)
  • Crumbly red and gold and orange maple leaves spilled from the pages of an old Thesaurus
  • and in a book of Neruda's poems, a small pressed bouquet of wildflowers, dusty and barely holding glints of gold and rose, was tucked quietly meshed between love poems. It was given to me by 6'5" curly haired Ben, collected from a roadside in June on our first date--he'd pulled the car over as we drove a country road outside Pittsburgh and collected and presented me with the most beautiful bunch of daisies, Queen Anne's lace and wild roses, pricking his thumb on the thorns. We had had a joyful love affair at a time in my life that I'd stopped believing in love. He's living now in the wilds of Juneau, Alaska.

It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of how books keep on giving. These treasures have made me laugh, cry a little, reminisce and feel how wealthy I am these last few weeks. Because of these surprising gifts of memory, I think I will continue to tuck a little something here and there between the pages of my books.

I will end on this most recent "find." I have been debating about whether or not to sell some very old books (one from 1896) to Caliban Bookstore. Yesterday afternoon, I pulled down one of my Grandfather Roche's (the man who inspired my love of poetry) old books of Yeats. This book was not Yeat's poetry, but a 1959 book called Mythologies, in which Yeats collected Irish stories of the supernatural and the uncanny, including his own brushes with these experiences.

I briefly flirted with the idea of whether or not I could part with this book. As if in answer, I saw a tiny bit of cellophane? what was that? peeking out from the chapter called "Rosa Alchemica." I had not tucked anything between the pages--it was a tiny "hello" from my dear grandfather, who passed away in 1979. The cellophane wrap from one of his ubiquitous cigars marked page 270,where he'd left off reading. "Garcia and Vega Cigars" on a gold and red label. The ever so faint smell of tobacco. I will leave it where I found it. The substance of things past as I move toward the future.


  1. What a lovely post. We are not moving, but in the throes of major reorganization and purging. It is astonishing how much stuff we collect after living in one spot for 8 years. My children all love books, so the books were overflowing the shelves and I needed to make some decisions. I, too, tuck notes into books. I also write in my books, so some of those that I gave away will have advice & information for the next owner.

    I found poems I forgot--both mine & yours--in letters from Saudi Arabia. I don't find much time to write in that way anymore; It was like finding a lost limb. Little snapshots of days gone by found in recipes, shopping lists, to do lists.

    The letter from your father was from right before I met you, and knew you to be a friend. Just a few days ago, just down the street.

  2. I save momentos in little boxes and bags throughout my belongings, as well. So interesting the things we have in common.

    I'm going to miss you, dear friend. But please keep in mind what I said to you this morning at my lovely bday breakfast... Just keep swimming, just keep swimming:

  3. Glad to see I'm not the only "pack-rat." I've got a terrible (but happy) habit of collecting books... novels, chap books, music books, cook books, books on the occult, philosophy, anything eerie... They all reside with me here in my study. My daughters laugh and call the room "Dad's cave." I am happy that several years ago I got rid of the baby grand that shared space here. (I sold it for a song to a fellow whose little girl wanted to learn piano). Now the books have overtaken all but the recliner-rocker that serves as my cave throne. I, too, have discovered ancient treasures long forgotten by conscious memory. But the unexpected discoveries are quite delightful when found.

    Thanks for sharing, Sharon.

  4. I have a belief inherited from my parents: When your books overwhelm your bookshelves, you have two options:

    - get more bookshelves
    - double up the shelves, w/ books one in front of the other, or just start stacking.

    I'm not sure my mother understands the concept of 'purging', although she's occasionally been known to take duplicates to her local used-book store...

    I have a photo from my parents' previous house, showing the living room bookshelf, whose top shelf was about four feet off the ground, but with a pile of books atop it three feet high and six feet long...