Still in recovery mode after a wonderful cottage weekend. Read BOTH books and started a third- which, thankfully, one of my friends had brought and finished. Responses to the stories will come but I’m having a bit of trouble shifting my brain out of glorious neutral right now.
I was thinking about the conversation that I had with the young woman at the bookstore checkout last week- how the Kobos et al are great tools but that things like a long weekend on a dock somehow demand the tangibility of an actual book- and the following piece came to mind.
It was submitted as an entry to the latest Canada Writes creative non-fiction competition. I remembered that it hit on the very discussion I had with the cashier and echoed my recent post about Cat Stevens. That type of synchronicity should not be ignored.
Our stories connect us and help us through difficult times. Whether they reflect musings about the unknowable/incomprehensible aspects of life or recount slices of our personal and collective experiences, they are worth recording and retelling. We are all storytellers- after our own, particular, fashions. We tell our stories to each other, and on behalf of others who can no longer do so. This is one such storytelling slice- about the power of memory and the joy and comfort of books.
One wall of my basement apartment living room is lined with bookshelves. To the casual observer there is no rhyme or reason to how the thousand-plus volumes are displayed. There are a dozen shelves that are reserved for the texts that represent my former life as an academic- including the 250-page dissertation to which I devoted so much of my adult life. But while the rest appear to be haphazardly placed, I can find any given book immediately should I go searching, something I do frequently. Friends who visit often ask about the collection (as do the family members who had the misfortune of helping me move), and the questions have only increased with the advent of e-books and tablets that are rapidly replacing the more traditional forms of the published word.
I have no problem with the new formats- anything that makes reading convenient and accessible is an invention of great worth, but I believe there is an inherent, and almost sensual, aesthetic value to a book. The feel of a book, the substance and weight of a treasured hardcover by an author I love, the slightly musty scent of an older volume, and the joy of physically turning the pages evoke an almost-atavistic response that a touch screen will never replicate. But more than that, for me, books can be old friends, and not just for the stories they tell but for the memories they evoke. They are markers of time, reminders of when they were first read. I am a consummate ‘grab whatever is at hand to use as a bookmark’ artist and so I often come across surprises when picking up an old friend to revisit.
I remember the first reading of a story rife with the language and images of a tropical climate, but with a subtext of mothers and daughters, and history. Delighting in the beautifully crafted pages, detailing a love affair with a city, and offering insights about mental illness, dementia and getting by in the context of things outside our human control.
The book returns a sense of time and place; specifically the ratty armchair in the basement apartment, occupied for the first reading of the book on the night the little tortoiseshell kitten came home. Drinking bourbon, because that’s what the book suggested. Even if I was in Ottawa and it was autumn, and chilly outside.
Then, years later, on a day off from a loathed job when I should be accomplishing things of substance- cleaning, buying Christmas presents, applications to jobs more suitable and challenging- there it was again. Glimpsed out of the corner of my eye while dusting, and despite all good intentions I was pulling the novel from the shelf to enjoy a day just for me- to revisit old, fictional friends and luxuriate in beautiful language as an antidote to the day to day mundane and ridiculous crises that have become my working existence.
A chapter or two into the novel I found the bookmark. It was an email dating from a time before emails were a daily reality, things to be read, answered and forgotten. Or used as communication with friends in far off places. This one came from my Dad, addressed to the three of us, me and my sisters. A short note detailing the first diagnostic definition of what we had all been sensing for some time. A name for the awareness that something was seriously wrong with Mum, the woman who had been the foundation and heart of our family. 12 years ago; the very beginning of the complete loss of her, finally giving that loss a name.
Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000 17:26:10 -0400
“Dear girls,” he wrote. “Last week I sent a letter to Dr. Matthews concerning mother. Today, at her previously arranged appointment with him, I invited myself to go along, having given mother the letter yesterday.
The upshot of this is that the doctor’s diagnosis is that mother is suffering from dementia. ‘Dementia is a condition characterized by a progressive decline of mental abilities accompanied by changes in personality and behaviour. There is commonly a loss of memory and skills that are needed to carry out every day activities.’ He tells me that he believes the form that she has will cease further loss at some point as contrasted to Alzheimer’s, in which the brain progressively loses its ability to function. He is attempting to have other expert doctors at Sunnybrook examine her to try to determine what form of dementia she has. But this could take up to two years.
He advises that at this time the dementia is not treatable.
Taking a break from my reading, I mentioned, also via email, that I had found the letter in the book to one of the true, flesh and blood, friends of my life. She asked how it made me feel, cutting to the heart of the matter as she is so good at doing. Almost 40 years of friendship makes that kind of directness possible, and necessary at times. The distance between us melted away with the question, and recalled how the distance between me and my parents and sisters seemed at once negligible and insurmountable when I first received the email in 2000. I was at a remove in all senses of the word, and at a loss as to what I could do to make it all go away.
Of course, nothing could make it go away. What followed was seven years of confusion- of watching a loving, beloved, active, amazing woman slowly and painfully lose all connection to those who loved her, and to those whose lives were touched immensely by her presence and grace in the world. But they were also years of learning about immeasurable depths of love and compassion in my father as he gently cared for her until the very end.
Coincidently my Dad, who is more computer savvy than some people half his age, forwarded one of those infernal ‘feel good’ email chain things that afternoon. It was about being in the winter of his years, and about appreciating life, good health, working for what you feel is important and getting past regrets and moving on. Since I had just had a disappointing series of interviews that didn’t end in the job I was hoping for that week, I couldn’t help but feel that the message was directed at me specifically, despite the fact that my sisters and others from among his many friends were copied on the email. Somehow the guy manages to keep us all going while embracing life with an enthusiasm that leaves the rest of us feeling as though we are irrationally bogged down by pettiness and irrelevancies.
That night I re-read the novel, by an author I have loved since I first encountered her work at the Leaside Library as a teenager. I spent the afternoon, and then the evening, sitting on my couch while Cat Stevens played in the background, and as I drank a Kilkenny- no bourbon this go-round- with the first light snow falling outside my window as Toronto became blanketed for the first time this year, I thought about Mum, and family and the holiday season fast approaching and counted blessings for the first time in a long time.
I petted the two cats I have now, the grey and the black (the little tortoiseshell and the tabby I had when I first read the book are long gone, yet remembered with love), and I took comfort from them and from my family and friends, my memories and the awareness that I was inside on a cold winter night, the first harbinger of even colder winter nights to come. There is music and beauty around me. And always, and forever, there are the books that take me back in time and memory as I continue on my “road to find out.”
As the music on the iPod shifted to a Skydiggers song, one that I would certainly hear at the annual Christmas show at the Horseshoe, I was overwhelmingly thankful.
I love my books. They are markers of my history, my present and my future. A residence without books can never be a home to me. The knowledge that there are new stories, and friends, out there waiting to be discovered is a miracle I take for granted, but I will always return to my old friends and the comfort, perspective and memories that they bring.