Monday, March 26, 2007

heart to heart

Dora stopped by yesterday, dancing into the shop and hugging the dogs in turn, and asking in her slightly bossy 8 year old way where each of the cats was. Cats were found, and patted, and she settled in Sara's armchair normally termed Champ's chair, but not when my friend Sara is listening; it is a lovely antique from her childhood and not suitable for pitbulls, probably. Except in my life, everything literally goes to the dogs, the cats, and the children.

Dora asked, quite seriously, "Do you have every book in the world here?" I assured her I did not, recalling my own encounter with a bookcloset at 8, and a teacher who snarled that I had read all the books in the world during my illicit moments of reading between lessons. I'm sure the horror of my belief that all the books in the world were in that closet--and what was the rest of my life going to be like?--shaped my path towards libraries and bookstores. I'm not sure what Dora's moments surrounded by the books in my store will end up doing for her.

At any rate, she wanted to read some poetry to the dogs. They were eager to listen. She checked through my poetry section and settled on Shel Silverstein as appropriate for canines. In between poems she chattered and confided.

And then she asked if I'd play Heart to Heart with her. It's not a game I knew, but she ran to her mom's car and produced a pack of cards with questions so we could take turns. "What is your favorite childhood memory?" She thought maybe we both should answer that. Hers was her 5th birthday, when there were bouncy-castles--five of them--and a cake that was made of icecream and her family was together. Mine was my 6th birthday, when the ship I'd traveled in docked in Japan and I saw my father for the first time in two years.

"You might have trouble with this one" she said "because, you know, you are old and you would need to remember back a long way probably". "Okay, what's the question?" "When was your first kiss?"
"Oh, I remember very well, Dora" I said, trying not to flinch at my increasingly dottery status. "It was a stage kiss, I was playing someone's wife. I was 16 or so, and we did end up girlfriend and boyfriend for a while". "Mine was when I was born, I think. I think my father kissed me on my head. He loved me."

"I'm sure he did". She has a very pretty smile that comes and goes like sunlight through clouds.

We found out each others favorite fairy tales: hers is Sleeping Beauty, mine was the 12 swans--a story she didn't know yet. She read some more poems to the dogs. She brought me her diary, in which the names of the boys she thinks are nice are written with hearts and flowers: Austin, and Gabriel, and Laurie. We tried hulahooping for a while.

My other customers were, as usual, tolerant--they have to be, because you never know if you are going to find people with hulahoops near the metaphysics books or a heavy political discussion or what when you enter this space.

And she dashed off again, her stepfather checking that all was well, her mother saying "she talks about this bookstore all the time at home". This time her book for home was on cats ("my favorite, favoritist animals of all, they are sooo cute"). I added a little blank book with roses on the cover--I usually have stacks around for my own writings, far too many to fill in the time I have. "I'll come back and show you all the stories I write!" she said.

Dora is lovely respite from some of my other visitors and their troubles, and from the crash of reality outside the bookstore walls. Today my partner waits in a congressman's office, where he has vowed to stay till he is arrested. Today a good friend who is keeping watch over his wife's long dying came to get some light reading, some escape.
The wife, Pat, is a poet whose life has been long and full and ebbs now, moment by moment, drop of morphine by drop of morphine.

The last note she sent, while she was still able to write, said "I watch the beautiful colors as they light the edges of the trees, as the sun goes down, as the night comes on."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

those things that fall out of books

At my shop we deal often with boxes of random books: "These were left in my garage" "My aunt died, I don't know what to do with these" "I'm moving". There are also the trades for credit and the desperate traveller who says he or she needs gas money and would I buy a few books they happen to have with them.

But it is the boxes, the piles of ten or twelve crumbling cardboard cartons packed with books, that are our challenge and our delight. Very often these turn out to contain a nice set of encyclopedias--some off brand--missing only two volumes, with water damage to all. Or a few cartons of all the Readers Digest Condensed Books issued from 1963 to 1971, in great condition. Or stacks of old catalogs.

My partner says "the book stops here". I remind him we have to pass the book...or books..along, somehow, or else why are we in the business. For many of the truckload volumes we have our free table outside. It is there the Readers Digests go, and the somewhat damaged but still readable volumes, a lot of the romance novels, and..whenever I spy a child from the trailer parks meandering our way, a stack of interesting children's books. Over the years we've sent thousands of books out into the community; we figure someday someone will wonder why our tiny region is so book obsessed and literate, and will likely credit the school system, never knowing it was the secret book-pushers at the odd little bookshop.

Over the years it has intrigued me what falls out of the books; what little bits of ephemera have been used as bookmarks, or tucked into some volume for safekeeping.

There have been photographs, usually the out-takes, the unflattering ones where the subject was caught mid sneeze, or with her eyes crinkled shut, or with a tree sprouting from the top of her head. There have been bonafide bookmarks , usually the cheery cardboard kind with owls, puppies, and bad poetry, plus a bit of thread in chartreuse, bright orange, or dayglo pink.

Clippings: the war has ended. Someone died. Someone was born. The book was reviewed.

Letters, receipts, bills.

A few times a Valentine--from the 1930's or 1920's, pressed away. And pressed away also, flowers, now pale smudges and crumbling bits of tan or brown or murky green--a wildflower, a corsage. Once, a sprig of Edelweiss collected, according to the fading note on the envelope, in Switzerland in 1909. It had kept its lovely fuzzy white form, living in the envelope in a travel guide all these long years. I wondered what the trip was like, how the mountain air smelled, how the light struck the mountains where surely there was still, even in summer, a bit of snow remaining. What other flowers were there? Who had been with the person who gathered and treasured this?

What did the war bring to those lives?

The other day I was moving some of my own books around. My cats help me a lot, pushing over the piles I stack around my desk, pointedly nudging one unstable group after another and staring at me as they fall as if to say "normal people are much, much tidier. And please notice the gleaming white fur at my neck while you are at it." As I was gathering up some of my books of poetry, a few little papers fluttered out. I picked them up, and stopped, and stared a while out into the almost-spring air.

One was a letter I'd forgotten, from someone I had deeply loved. When his latest child was born I made a quilt for it; having made quilts for nearly all children dear to me--odd hodgepodges of fabric with embroidered animals and little snippets of rhyme and the name of the new baby. He was writing--evidently many months later--to thank me. It's been a long time since we were in the same area; it was a complicated time, but a sweet one in its way.

All the joy and sorrow of those times rushed back as I held his letter, with its news of mountain journeys and his work and the wellbeing of his growing family. I made the right choice, back in those deliriously tempting days. But in the spring, as the river runs deep and the willows start to show flashes of bright chartreuse, and the air is so sweet, I recall those days and hours so vividly. Passion is a complicated country...but the hearts of children should not be damaged. I thought that then, and I think it now, and send that now distant family my heart's good wishes, and turn back to my own. I know where I belong and where my heart's true home is--but, in another story, in another time--well, the ending could have been different. Probably not better--literature is full of cautionary tales: look at poor Anna K, and the heroines of Hardy, and Henry James, and all. Perhaps it was my background in literature that kept me to a ethical center?

Anyway, I tucked the letter into another book. And looked at the next bit of paper. My mother's handwriting, that elegant Spenserian hand, on a scrap: a recipe for Apple Crisp. Apples, honey, lemon juice, cinnamon. Topped with an oat mixture, but the recipe for that isn't with it. I remember it, however--it was an old childhood sweet, and I've often made it for my own kids.
Made me think of my latest email from my stepmother, bringing up again the affair my mother had with her husband (it is complicated indeed: two couples, one of them a church pastor and his wife. My mother, supposedly, involved with the young pastor. Two divorces. My father marries the now freed pastor's wife. Oh, soap opera had nothing on this). Now--it is, what, 40 years from that time--my stepmother writes still of her hurt and the shame of it all.
My mother always said the accusations were untrue; my very beautiful mother, buried now near a lilac tree in a far northern state. She died 6 months after my father. My stepmother says she recently found...falling out of a book--a letter from my mother to my father, sealed. Never opened. She says she'll send it my way someday, if she thinks of it.

The final thing from between my book pages turns out to be a torn card on which at some time or another I took the time to scrawl a quote from Lamartine: "I am a fellow citizen of all who think. Truth, that is my country."

It is an odd quote for me to have wanted to save--I tend to love the stories more than the truth per se. But possibly it was in a moment in which I needed the world to make a bit more sense.