When my grandparents moved into a four-bedroom Houston home in 1965, they brought only a modest collection of prized possessions: the record player and its dozens of classical records, the sepia-toned photographs of relatives from the old country, the piano and its reams of sheet music. Their home must have felt impossibly empty with only a 5-year-old in tow.
Over time, though, the house became filled with other items: two more growing boys and in-laws who would come to stay for a few months out of the year. What had once been a cozy nest for the young parents now became the venue for after-school basketball scrimmages, synagogue charity meetings and traditional Passover Seders. A black-andwhite three-channel television appeared in the corner of the living room; various newspapers and magazines accumulated on my grandfather’s desk.
But even as the collection of items common to everyday life — neckties, tuna fish sandwiches, footballs — slowly filled my grandparents’ home, a whole other category of prized belongings became the most cherished of all: the books.
American history and biography. Sports memoirs and European post-war novels. Religious commentary, religious texts, and my grandfather’s writings on Texas history.
These books hold the story of life inside my grandparents’ cottage-style home. It was books that most inspired Thanksgiving table conversations, phone calls with grandchildren and handwritten postcards to family scattered worldwide. While I imagine some homes become overrun with plants or cats, my grandparents’ home is overrun with books. Shelves line every inch of wall space, bearing volumes with titles such as “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” and “The War for the Union.” My grandparents commissioned an iron worker in Houston to make special bookshelves for the house’s narrow hallways.
But while my grandparents’ books have maintained their sturdy spines and have not yellowed with time, the same cannot be said of my grandparents. With each return to Houston, my parents and I are reminded of my grandmother’s unsteady gait, my grandfather’s failing eyesight, the burden the crumbling house has become. In hushed tones my dad and his brothers talk about moving their parents to an assisted living facility as each hurricane season leaves a new path of destruction in its wake.
But when that day comes, what will happen to the books?
I ask this question with the uncomfortable feeling that I will be asking it again 30 or 40 years from now. My mom says she bought our house in Dallas 18 years ago because of its floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves, shelves already filled beyond capacity. Stacked horizontally on top of one another or packed together in neat rows, the books range from a collection of New Yorker pieces by Woody Allen to volumes on codebreaking during World War II. Then, there are the books that tell the narrative of my parents’ own lives together, like “Riley’s Love Lyrics,” which my dad purchased on my parents’ honeymoon and inscribed with the words, “To Lisa, who I love so dearly.”
Perhaps one day, when my parents’ house becomes too quiet and the burden is too much for them to bear, my siblings and I will speak in hushed tones about my parents and their precious books.
It is strange to realize that the individual items collected over my grandparents’ 62-year marriage will one day mean little to anyone, reduced instead to a list of items once cherished because of “that time when …” Who today would jump at the possibility of acquiring my grandparents’ beloved book collection, or that of my parents or perhaps, one day, mine?
When I called my grandparents earlier this week to ask about random books they have collected over the years, my grandmother casually mentioned William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The title, famously taken from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” is excerpted from the end of Macbeth’s soliloquy, in which he concludes that life and its struggles are devoid of any meaning:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
As I wonder how many tomorrows my grandparents’ books will have, I hold onto some belief that there was meaning in the collection, and that the books themselves contributed meaning to the years my grandparents have spent in that house since 1965.
But as the books’ yesterdays seem so much more in number than their tomorrows and tomorrows and tomorrows, I am less sure. I glance across the shelf to find Iréne Némirovsky’s “All Our Worldly Goods,” and I am sad.