Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Bookcases

Whenever my kids’ friends come to our house for a sleepover, they invariably say “It looks like a library!”

I love reading, and I love being surrounded by books. Sadly, mere proximity to books is not passing bibliophilia on to my kids. Yet. But my bookcases actually are monuments to parental love.

When I left law school back east and moved to Seattle twenty-seven years ago, my parents’ graduation gift was five large oak bookcases. This was not just a gentle hint to get all my heavy boxes of books out of their attic. My parents gave me the spark to light a hearth I could build my own home around.

Mom and Dad have lived in the same house in Bellingham for thirty-six years. My father finished remodeling it to his satisfaction long ago, so not much has changed in my kids’ lifetime. (My parents just had the exterior repainted, and insisted the painters match the old color.) As long as anyone can remember, their living room has been dominated by a wall of similar plain oak bookcases, filled with favored books that have passed the test of time. There are satellite bookshelves in every other room, of course, and stacks of library books next to every comfortable chair. The other bookcases all shift as my parents reconfigure their house to host the newest generation of family guests. But the oak bookcases in their living room endure as our family’s Stonehenge, timeless and resolute.

Like the ancient Druids, I have miraculously moved my own sacred rectangular blocks – and the heavy boxes of books filling them – across many a daunting landscape. They stood in two Seattle apartments and two houses over five years, then five years in an apartment and a house in Chicago, before coming back to another Seattle apartment for a year. For sixteen years they were on Whidbey Island, first in my bedroom, then up in my study after the lavish remodel. This winter we finally brought them home to Bellingham. My father, brother, nephew and I had to knock a huge hole in the wall to get them down the spiral staircase.

My bookcases look perfect in our Bellingham living room.  In fact, much as have loved some of the other places where I’ve been fortunate enough to live in the last forty years, this is the first time since my childhood I feel completely at home. 

My favorite bookcase is upstairs in my bedroom, filled with the books I love most. It is a beautiful oak barrister’s bookcase, with sliding glass doors and metal trim. If I could afford it I would scour antique stores to find similar oak pieces. But this one will always be unique.

My sainted ex-mother-in-law Judy grew up in Hooper, Nebraska. As an itinerant Lutheran school teacher she moved all over the Midwest – my ex didn’t go to the same school two years in a row until he was a senior in high school. As someone who was traumatized by moving just once in his youth, I can’t imagine how Judy managed their annual migration. One way she was able to maintain a home for four kids was the fact they were always surrounded by beloved family antiques. Like the delicate china cabinet an ancestor brought over from Germany in the 1800s, and the uncomfortable George and Martha Washington chairs upholstered with ancient needlepoint.

Judy and Bob eventually retired to Kansas, but the year they would have celebrated their fiftieth anniversary he ran off. I helped her with the divorce, and she moved back to Hooper to a small apartment near her sister. There wasn’t room for most of the family antiques, so they sat in a storage unit. Judy has continued to endure a series of painful trials rivaling my own recent biblical plagues. But Judy did it with a grace and cheer I could never pull off myself, and will always admire.

Several years ago, our family drove to Hooper for an extended summer vacation. I love spending the Fourth of July in small towns where the whole community alternates between being in and watching the parade. My kids had a blast with cousins, fireworks, and swimming lessons. I introduced them to fireflies, one of the delights I first encountered when I moved to Illinois. At the end of our vacation we rented a U-Haul, filled it with antiques from the storage unit, and I drove back west. My ex drove the minivan (until it died in Yakima and we had to rent a car for the last leg of the journey). And we filled our home on Whidbey Island with Judy’s family treasures.

These days our kids alternate weeks between my place and the house across town where Jason and his husband live. At Daddy’s house they are surrounded by familiar heirlooms like the German china cabinet and the uncomfortable chairs. However, when we separated Jason graciously gave me the barrister’s bookcase. I will always be grateful for the many wonderful things in my life he made possible, our three kids most of all. And my bookcases will always remind me my kids are blessed with amazing grandparents.

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