Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Artifacts



For S.

I did not know him well the summer I began to loot his small library. He was my father-in-law's father. What was evident as I went through his books was that he had an intellectual life—the books had been read, passages underlined, related articles from newspapers and journals clipped and placed like dried flowers between the pages.

As my father-in-law tells it, his father was a lawyer and intellectual who immigrated to Los Angeles from Ecuador and began teaching Spanish when my father-in-law was young. His Spanish students started the book collection. Many titles from his library were histories, biographies, and books about painters, essays, and philosophy. The books were not random selections, but well-known titles and authors in the selected fields. Someone had chosen these works with an eye toward developing an intellect, a life of the mind. Did he select any of them, or were they all the choices of former students? I wanted to believe that he chose at least some of them, and that the underlined passages were words he found significant and important.

The following summer, my father-in-law let us know the last of the books were ours if we wanted them because his parents had decided to move to a retirement home. Before collecting the books from the old apartment, we visited them. We wound our way through the streets of Glendale to a neighborhood of short, squat older homes and parked in the loading zone in front of a sprawling, pink, single-story building. It was decorated to look like a house, but its size gave it away. It actually looked like four regular houses all hooked together, fronted by a broad concrete veranda.

We ended up on the flowered sofas in the greeting area by the electric door. The grandfather spoke to me in his whispery English. Once in a while, my father-in-law would have to repeat what he said, or answer my questions.

When I asked what he had been reading, he glanced down at his lap. "No time," he said softly. "No time at all." He paused for a moment, glancing around the room. "Besides, that's all over with. No more books."

I looked into his eyes. He had the same resignation I'd seen in other, elderly eyes when they are forced to give up something of their lives and freedoms to age: the end of driving a car; the end of living alone. Yet, there was something else. He was not sad. Maybe a bit wistful, but giving up his intellectual life was something he'd already made peace with and moved beyond. There would be no need to carry baggage on this final journey.

He walked us out onto the veranda in the twilight where we said our goodbyes. He shook my hand and wished me well before turning and making his way back through the electric doors.

At the apartment, I took a box to the dusty shelves lined with the remaining volumes. These were the books he treasured most: his biography of Cervantes, a writer he once told me he greatly admired; his classical volumes of the world's greatest literature; In My Own Way by Alan Watts; Inconsolable Memories by Edmundo Desnoes. There were volumes on science, the nature of the universe, philosophy, metaphysics, and history.

When I finished packing, my father-in-law handed me the latest issue of the New Yorker. "I'm going to transfer the remainder of his subscription to your name," he said. "He doesn't want it anymore."

At home, I sat in my study unpacking the books and dusting each volume. Then I began the ritual of finding space for them on the shelf. Again, I found his scribbled notes, clippings of reviews and related articles stuffed between the pages. In one book was his business card: Gonzalo Garcia. Teacher. Translator.

I remembered the last image of him going through the electric door. I imagined myself someday walking through that final door. Who would come to box up all my books and cart them away? Would they realize that someone once treasured these objects of wood pulp and ink? Would someone come, as I did, to excavate the ruins, to claim the artifacts of what we leave behind at the end of all our days? Carefully, I placed each book on the shelf with all the others. I was the guardian of the relics now. They are a part of my life, representative of what I treasure, and I will keep them safe for all my days. After that, they will be for someone else to keep.