Yesterday I made progress. I installed a bookshelf and dusted off books that have been in boxes for years. In fact, I haven’t had my books out since 2006. I shipped them to Sweden in 2000, shipped them back in 2009, put them into storage and then shipped them to L.A. in October. I tore up boxes that had my ex-husband’s initials on them. You gotta respect a box that lasts 15 years. One box, the kind paper is sold in, from circa 2000, made it across the Atlantic in a shipping container (book rate) – and back. If you’ve ever shipped books internationally, you know why they put your box in a big canvas mail bag. If your books arrive dry, you’re a happy camper.
Oh! Larousse Gatronomique. Oh, my collection of M.F.K. Fisher books! How I missed them. Among the volumes I found and flipped through the Gutenberg Elegies, a book written by my former Bennington thesis advisor, about reading in the electronic age. Unpacking my books was like reading letters from old friends, and a stark contrast to the hours spent listening to my father explain the Kindle to my grandmother last weekend. Will this treasuring of books be an unfamiliar sensation to the current generation?
I fortified myself with leftover stuffing from our recent early Christmas dinner, then I built two IKEA shelving units to store all these books. While part of me was satisfied with this, another part of me is sure life was better on boats when I didn’t have to spend $300 on shelves to put my things on. Having cleared the space where the boxes were, I put up a Christmas tree. It’s a little fake white thing that belonged to my grandmother. As I hung the ornaments – colored glass bulbs from the 50s that hung on this very tree when my mom was a kid – I thought about the last time I put up a tree.
I don’t think I’ve had my own tree since I moved to Sweden in 2000. But I did decorate this one in 2009. They had just moved my grandfather to hospice. In the retirement village where my grandparents had been living among other retired Air Force personnel, a contract stated that once they couldn’t care for themselves, it was time to vacate the 4,000-square-foot house they had been occupying and move into a one-bedroom apartment. There was no room for a tree. But it was Christmas. My grandfather was dying. And my grandmother was watching all of her things (and she loved her things) being trucked away.
I put the tree up outside her new place, in a carpeted hallway lit by fluorescent lights. I encircled it with gold and red ribbons. I dug out only the gold and silver ornaments (she loved anything that glittered). I put an old angel on top. The way I remember it, she barely took note. But when we left her apartment, and the staff dimmed the hallway lights for the night, you would have thought she was the most-loved resident on her floor.
This, I think, is why we keep things. Trees. Ornaments. Old gloves. A gaudy-framed 5×7 of my grandmother’s godmother. My grandfather’s cocktail shaker. Books. Surely every generation will do this. They will keep at least one book around, and they’ll pick it up and thumb through it when they want to remember the past.