Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Books, love and our 25th wedding anniversary

I have a book garden. It’s located behind my desk and it takes up an entire wall of my office, floor to ceiling, front to back.   My husband built this for me twelve years ago, constructing it a la Shaker style, forming a grid on the floor, nailing pine boards together then raising the entire unit until it stood flush and vertical against the wall.  He even added some molding to the top and sides.  A designer’s flourish.

We’d stored our books in cardboard boxes for years while we traveled overseas to Hungary and then back to New England and several states before settling in Boston, where we live now.  At some point in my wanderlust, in my need to leave everything behind, I dared to leave another lifetime of books in a basement of a rental apartment.  It felt wrong but I did it anyway—I was choosing to change the course of my life and books were heavy.  I had to lighten my load.  

But now I was done with traveling for a while. We had a five year-old and we were anchoring ourselves for the upcoming school years.  Unloading those boxes of books was a joyous, frantic affair. Boxes and boxes finally unbound, we stripped off packing tape like new lovers ripping off clothes, hurling ourselves into happiness, reuniting after months.   I was so relieved.  Finally, my books were back in my life.
Over time, the shelves took on their own order, a sort of “his side, her side” way of things (reminding me of Carver’s description of a couple’s bed in one of his stories).   History and business books dominated “his” side, with some law textbooks and biology books intermixed.  On my side, novels and plays and poetry from undergraduate and graduate school days.  More recently, shelves full of books written by friends.

That was thirteen years ago. My son is 18, and today my husband and I are celebrating 25 years of marriage. My collection of books has become a moveable time keeper, a shuffling abacus—with each book demarking some important passage of events, people, memories.  

Feeling the push of decades behind me, I recently spent a weekend culling my book shelves. It was tedious yet satisfying.  A book garden overgrown and tangled, I dusted and vacuumed crusty spines, pulled out textbooks I knew I wouldn’t reread, and paired lost volumes with each other.  Finally, War And Peace Vol. 1 and 2 are side by side again. My Pushcart Prize anthologies, helter skelter on separate shelves, are lined up together in numerical order.   I came across a Jean Rhys novel that I adored so long ago: Voyage in the Dark.  Rereading the opening line, I fell in love once more:

“It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I’d ever known.”

There’s my book of Montaigne Essays (not the new one published recently); the one that my English professor gave me in college, a teacher who confessed to me that Montaigne’s essays had saved his life.  There’s my book of Flannery O’Connor letters (Habit of Being) that I read the summer after my bone marrow transplant in 1981. O’Connor and I both had blood diseases.  Her daily discipline of writing and faith ushered me through that year I reclaimed my health.

As I weeded my books, I also came across a book I didn’t know I owned.  Intrigued by the title and picture: Ishia biography of the last Wild Indian in North America, I began reading and couldn’t stop.  Sad, beautiful, aching, Ishi is the story of a man who witnessed his culture’s extinction by the White Man.  It’s about ancient time colliding with modern time. It’s about how we cling but can’t hold on—like our hearts, like Ishi’s. It’s about reaching out to find new centers of order and connection after loss.  Like Ishi’s loss of his entire people, like my loss of my father this past December. Time floods on.

The year before I met my husband, I was living in a studio apartment in Boston. 1985. Most of my furnishings consisted of books I’d bought from a place called The Bookcase in Cambridge.  The Bookcase was a warehouse-sized building so crammed full of books, it spilled into a 3-story annex across the street.  Art books, literature, science textbooks, obscure books.  Any book.  Every book.  The Bookcase was a library, a place to wander down paperback aisles, a place to eavesdrop, to fall asleep. The Bookcase even functioned as a bank, at least for me.  Anytime I needed fast cash, I knew I could haul a few books down to The Bookcase and sell them back to the owner. It was a perfect arrangement.  A perfect balance for my cash-strapped life steeped in books.

So when my future husband and I decided to move to Florida together, I sold my furniture and headed back over to The Bookcase to sell more books. 

 “I’m in love,” I told the owner of The Bookcase.  “We’re planning to get married!” I put several grocery bags of books on the sidewalk outside the store where he was kneeling, restacking some sale books.   (I must have borrowed a friend’s car to deliver that load.) “That’s why I’m getting rid of everything. We’re moving to Florida.”  I shrugged.  “I don’t really want to sell them, but I need the money to buy a car. I mean, these books have been my life—So many memories--“

The owner nodded with the seriousness of an undertaker, then something sparked in his head.

 “Let me tell you a story about a young couple who fell in love and wanted to marry,” he said, turning to me.  It was a warm summer day in Cambridge, the kind of day that encourages musing.

“The girl was beautiful but her family was poor. So poor, her father had no money for her dowry.  In those days:  no dowry. No marriage,” the bookcase owner said.  “Naturally, the father fretted over this. What to do?  He had nothing of value that he could sell except his books. His books were very dear to him--like yours are to you--but he realized he had to sell them for his daughter’s dowry.   Over the years, the father had built quite a collection. So he stacked his books on the street outside his house and put them up for sale.  One by one, as people walked by, he began to have second thoughts.  That book is very special, he would think, and take it back into the house.  As the day wore on, he took book after book back into the house until there were no more books on the sidewalk, no sale and no dowry for his daughter.  She never married.

“That’s terrible!” I said, pushing my books closer to him.

 “So you see,” the owner said to me. “You’re making the right choice.”

A few days later, I got on a plane and flew south to be with the man I love.  Today, a quarter of a century later, I honor this story of books,  this story of time, this story of our marriage, and try to balance it all on this tiny nexus of today, this tipping point between yesterday and tomorrow. Today, 2011, my 25th wedding anniversary day.  1986. June 08. Boston. Gone. Here. Forever.


  1. Jessica,
    What a wonderful post. Love and books. A terrific combination. Book garden. A great metaphor.
    Most importantly, happy 25th anniversary.

  2. Thanks for your good wishes, Linda and Billie! Billie, I know you just celebrated a big 17 years, and Linda-so glad your writing retreat went well.

  3. What a beautiful testament to you and Barr! (And books.) Happy Anniversary, Jessica.

  4. Beautiful Jessica. I would love to see a picture of your "book garden."

  5. Wonderful essay. Last year we packed up about thirty boxes of books to store in the garage while we attempted to sell our house. Then, we decided not to sell. But not all the books made it back in; some, it seemed, were destined for someone else's collection. And in sorting through things I, like you, uncovered some long forgotten treasures in the collection. The most blessed discoveries were the little notes that fluttered out of those books from an age ago.

    Happy Anniversary!


  6. Randy--thank you!
    Jazger - oh, of course. Here you go. Picture is uploaded. Not sure it does it justice.

    Kathy--isn't it wonderful, those fluttering discoveries. So glad you got that pleasure. Hope you're also glad you didn't sell.

  7. Dear Jessica,
    I loved this from beginning to end!!! Books have always marked passages in my life. I've read all of Jean Rhys at one time or another: love her!!! And so love your bookshelf that your husband built and the photos of your beautiful son!!!! Thanks so much for sharing!!! Meg Tuite

  8. Hi Jessica,

    I've now read your blog entry twice, once from my iPhone where I was unable to successfully leave a message and now from my PC where I hope to have better luck.

    I started to say the piece is beautifully written. I forget this is a blog, and I feel as though I'm reading a wonderful memoir. I would love to read more.

    I also found the entry interesting because today at lunch, I started a blog piece about the past feeling not just like a few years back, but like a different era altogether. When I read your wonderful post, I feel a connection to what I'm trying to write.

    Hopefully, I'll get my piece together over the weekend. Thank you for the inspiration.


  9. Love the energy of this! The sense of the torrent that has propelled the two of you forward for 25 years... And Jean Rhys. And the story of the man who couldn't part with his books so that his daughter could marry...and the absolute certainty you had when you parted with yours. Today all your readers share that certainty. Happy anniversary!

  10. I am so grateful for these kind comments.
    Meg-thank you. I'm thrilled that you also love Jean Rhys. We share something I didn't expect. How wonderful. So glad you enjoyed. I've got your novel on my list to read. Excited for you.
    Cindy--I'm amazed by your persistence, and happy that my sense of the past connected for you in a way that will spur you on. That's terrific.
    Patry- you, too, love Jean Rhys! I truly adore her work and plan to reread. And, thank you for your beautiful words. Yes. I was sure when I met Barr--I knew he was the one.

  11. So many beautiful words resonate with me in this post, Jessica. I, too, have a book garden, the perfect metaphor for my life right at this minute, as the overgrown flora garden at my new house has captured my fancy while the books I so lovingly boxed and paid big money to ship from coast to coast now sit in boxes awaiting their shelves in my new studio.

    So have so many parallels in our life, too. I'll celebrate my 25th anniversary this year (September 13th) and like you, I culled my book garden before moving to Japan shortly after my marriage. We do what we must for love, no? As much as I love a good book, it will never stroke my back when it aches, can't caress tears from my cheeks, or hold me tight against the night's fears. My husband is better than a book and it sounds like yours is bound in the same cloth as mine.

    What a joy to know you and share these experiences. Be blessed now and for the next 25 and more years.

  12. Lovely piece--a wonderful weaving of books and marriage, and such fun to see the pictures! So happy that you found lasting love and that you have a book garden.

  13. jessica,
    happy anniversary! thanks so much for sharing this beautiful story about the importance of books in your life and being able to let them go when necessary. loved the garden connection and as i sit in my library and look around at the books that i am surrounded by, i still sometimes think about the ones that got away. xo
    (my husband and i will celebrate 26 years in august!)

  14. Robin,
    Thank you, and congratulations on your upcoming 26 years. I enjoyed your recent post about your books that got away and am posting the link to it here:

    Also, urging readers to check out your weekly radio show: Reading With Robin, every Sat. from 7-8 a.m. Catch up on past shows with audiocasts (Robcasts). Great roster of authors.