Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Books, Downsizing and Life
This bookcase was built my maternal grandfather. I don’t know how old it is. When I was seven, it was the only bookshelf in our apartment. We had a set of World Book Encyclopedias, but I think they were stored on a built-in shelving unit in the living room. Back in the 1950’s, there were no empty spaces on grandpa’s shelves. Now, it reflects my efforts at downsizing.
I believe in downsizing. I think living with less is a worthy goal, and I’d like a smaller carbon footprint. After 40 years in the same house, the accumulated stuff can get very cumbersome. After moving my mom three times and having to make decisions about her things, I’d like to lessen the load for my kids. The idea of them grumbling about my treasures after I’m gone makes an unattractive picture. But my books. I could never get enough of them. I’ve already made multiple donations to libraries, books for prisoners and more. It’s getting to the place where the ones I still have feel essential to being myself. I don’t know if I can send them out the door.
I love reading. As a kid my grandfather’s shelf with its limited collection was a magnet for me. I started with the top shelf, first book. When I finished that one, I replaced it and moved to book two. Eventually, I read them all and went back up to shelf one and started over. The books belonged to all of us, but I thought they were all mine. The constant re-reading I did became part of the family lore. I probably read each one a hundred times. Some of them were way too mature for me. Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, Hawaii were all very instructive, albeit inappropriate. But no one stopped me. I liked mythology, especially The Iliad. Nature books, too with illustrations of birds, trees and insects. I read the World Books. My favorite volume was “D,” which featured beautifully painted pictures of all the dog breeds. I couldn’t let it go with the rest of them.
Books were my safety net. They shut out the emotional chaos of the world and didn’t require anyone but me. Acquiring them became my life’s quest.
When I was 8, I suffered a broken nose in gym class. I was trying to avoid tumbling which I hated. When I tried to con the teacher out of doing forward somersaults because of bobby pins in my hair, he made me run to his desk to pull them out. I slipped and wound up face first right on the desk corner. I stood up, trying not to cry but I felt wet. Looking down I saw my white gym blouse saturated with blood. The teacher wiped me down and sent someone to get a sweater from my locker. I went back to class.
That day, my sister and I went to lunch at our aunt and uncle’s house. There was no lunchroom in our school. I was biting into a tuna salad sandwich on pumpernickel bread, sliced in triangles, when my uncle walked into the kitchen and said, “now that’s what I call a broken nose.” I lost my appetite immediately. Later my mother came and took me to Dr. Weiss, one of the early villains of my life. He pressed and prodded, all the while asking if it hurt. I lied every time but he said that I needed to get it reset immediately, the next morning. I told him that I’d do it as long as I didn’t have to get any shots-no needles, to which he agreed. We left his office and I cried and cried until my mom told me I could eat anything I wanted for dinner. We settled on a big bag of Tootsie Rolls. The next morning I drank some bitter potion mixed with a bit of orange juice and off we went to the hospital. Imagine my horror as the first event featured a gruff nurse who said I needed a “hypo.” Shorthand for a hypodermic needle. I cried and argued and told her about the doctor’s promise but alas. That was my first experience with bald faced lying by adults to a kid. At least the first one I knew about. The rest of the prep time I explained over and over about the promise but they stuck me anyway and as I counted backwards from a hundred, I was a bitterly angry kid. When I woke, I had a cast on my nose held on by two elastic straps around my head. I was hungry. I was in a children’s ward and it was dinner time and I could smell burgers and French fries on the trays being carried in to the other kids. When my tray came it had one measly rubbery square of lime jello. I was so done. The doctor came and said I needed to spend the night. An eight year old’s version of when hell freezes over came out of my mouth. They said I could leave if I could get to my dress which was hanging on the curtain rod above the bed. The dress was black with red, white and gray polka dots and I slithered my way into it for the win. When we came home, my parents told me I could sleep on the couch in the living room. I felt so special, utterly unaware that their intent was to protect my sisters from the expected disturbance from the drugged-out little patient. But even better, my dad had gone out and bought me a collection of books based on the films of Shirley Temple. And they were definitely all mine. I’m not sure if ever felt so special. I’ve kept them for 58 yearsEventually I became more autonomous and aware that my lust for books was unmatched by both my parents’ income and the space in our apartment. I discovered libraries, plowing through biographies, history and sports stories.
I read popular series of the time, kids’adventure books, mysteries, and animal stories that shaped my life choices as I grew up. I loved the Albert Payson Terhune books about the Sunnybank collies which had such a powerful effect on me that the dogs of my life were all that breed.
The Black Stallion books are still in my house. All those childhood books were a refuge from family problems, money problems and the limited lifestyle that my parents chose, perhaps by necessity, perhaps by inertia. They were my intellectual foundation that I built on and my endless reading forned me internally, page upon page, empowering me to believe there was a beyond, a future, a different space that I could reach by stacking up the words so high that I’d vault over the limits of my youth. I don’t really believe that I need the actual books any more,but I have a sense of loyalty to those tools which gave me the strength and courage to move beyond my childhood constraints. How do I downsize those pieces of my history? I don’t think I can and I forgive myself. I’d rather sleep on a pallet than give them away.