Printing Press

The most extraordinary thing I own (and the most difficult to get rid of) is an antique printing press—or what used to be a printing press. Now it is a 2000-pound cast-iron anchor to my past and to this place. We got it from a bachelor farmer named Jim Booth, who used to live in Princeton, Missouri, and who, in addition to farming and caring for his elderly mother, also ran a business he called, logically enough, “Jim’s locksmith, print shop, and shoe repair.” (I wonder how he classified it for purposes of accounting or income tax preparation.)

We first met Jim through his mother, “Maw-maw,” whom we got to know when my ex-husband, Mike, was putting together an alumnae art show for Stephens College, where he was then teaching graphic design. She had responded to an invitation to tell how she had used her art since graduation by saying that she “hadn’t done much with her art, other than give occasional chalk talks around the county” but that her son, George, was doing right well as a cartoonist in New York. We could not believe our luck. Could this be the same George Booth whose cartoons we read each week in the New Yorker?

Well, one thing led to another, as they tend to do, and Maw-maw agreed to make the four-hour trip to Columbia to participate in the alumnae art show in the spring, and she said she thought she could convince George to come along to do an “ambidextrous chalk talk” with her. Maw-maw was well into her eighties and didn’t travel easily, so her son Jim fixed up a “camper” with a place for Maw-maw’s wheelchair and easel and pads of drawing paper and buckets of colored chalk, as well as a platform where she could stretch out if she got tired on the trip, and one day they all pulled in to our driveway.

It was the oddest thing to meet characters we had seen for many years in New Yorker cartoons. Maw-Maw was obviously the inspiration for George’s drawings of Mrs. Ritterhouse, the fiddle-playing old woman who used to sit on her front porch and shoot down crop-duster planes. And looking at Jim’s home-made camper, I could easily imagine that their farmhouse up in Princeton might have bare lightbulbs hanging over the kitchen table, with numerous extension cords running from the fixture to every appliance in the place, and dogs and cats lounging about the house and yard—just as in George’s cartoons.

George did indeed do an ambidextrous chalk talk with his mother to a small but somewhat bewildered audience in Windsor Lounge. They stood together at the easel, telling down-home stories and illustrating them with funny drawings, Maw-maw holding the chalk with her right hand and George  with his left. It turns out that she had done something with her art since graduation, after all, as she had been publishing a cartoon a week in the Princeton paper for the past thirty years. Before that she was a schoolteacher, and her husband was a principal. She was very happy to be back at her alma mater and reminisced about how she had met her husband at the University a couple blocks away. As they were packing up the camper to return home, Maw-maw told us again what a good time she had and invited us to come visit them sometime. Of course, having just met these people who looked as though they had walked straight out of cartoons we loved, we had to go see the place they called home. That’s when we learned about Jim’s locksmith, print shop, and shoe repair.

The print shop especially caught our imagination. I had been interested in letterpress printing and book arts for many years, since taking a workshop in library school, and Mike, as a graphic designer, was interested in woodblock prints. Of course, Jim’s printing press was nothing like I had worked with before or was interested in owning. For one thing, it had an electric motor hooked up to it and an enormous flywheel that frightened me. The trays of type that Jim used were all mixed up, different sizes and fonts all jumbled together, but they served his purpose, apparently, which was to print flyers for tractor pulls and farm auctions and old thresher reunions. Possibly we mentioned sometime during the visit that we had “always wanted to have a printing press.”

We only went for the one visit and we never met George again, although Mike continued to correspond with him for a while; the year our younger son was born, George sent him a stuffed animal (an adorable pig) and sent our older son one of his books, It’s Not My Turn to Look for Grandma, which was destined to become a favorite. During those years, Jim would occasionally stop by the house when he came down to Columbia for medical appointments or visits to the VA. Sometimes he would spend the night in his motorhome, which he pulled up out front and plugged into our house. He began talking about having to sell the farm when his mother died and wondering what he was going to do after that.

One day he arrived unannounced, hauling the printing press on a trailer, and then proceeded to hook up a winch to his old car and basically “ride” the press down the concrete steps on skids into our basement. It was amazing to watch, and I wish now that I had filmed the process. He then unloaded typecases, trays of jumbled and broken type of all sizes, bottles of ink, ink rollers, composing sticks, quoins and keys, and various other supplies and equipment. He assured us that the press worked fine, but I had no intention of ever turning it on around my two-year-old son, and sending that giant wheel flying. Fortunately, within days of it being in our house, our dog chewed through the band, and I knew we would never get the thing repaired and running. Years later, Mike and I divorced, and he moved out, but the broken printing press remains.

Downsizing

The story was that my grandmother sold the cabin on the lake—furnishings and all—while my grandaddy was out fishing, and then they retired to Boca Raton, Florida, where they bought all new everything, including dishes, towels, and linens. Possibly that was even true.

They had already moved out of the large two-story house in Georgetown, Kentucky, where they had lived for more than twenty years while teaching at the college. I don’t know what happened to everything they once owned, but I know my mother has a few family items—a cherry press, a Seth Thomas clock, and a rocking chair with arms carved into swans that used to be in the formal living room. My brother may have another rocker that was in their master bedroom.

I used to own the Starr piano that was in my grandparents’ dining room, until I traded it in when I bought a new Baldwin the summer after I graduated from college. I also have a few items that somehow came down to me over the years, although I can’t quite remember how I ended up with them:

  • a small writing desk
  • a few sheets of piano music from the nineteen-fifties that belonged to my mother when she was a teenager
  • a ceramic pig that held sugar cookies in the large pantry off the kitchen
  • a set of Noritake china with pale pink and yellow roses and an ornately patterned rim
  • a small wicker rocker that belonged to grandmother when she was a girl

I also have a copy of my grandparents’ college yearbook from 1920, which they gave me when I graduated from their alma mater fifty-five years later, and a book called Boys and Girls at School, which grandaddy used to teach my mother how to read when she was only four.

I used to think my grandparents were crazy for getting rid of everything the way they did, but now I think they were very wise. Much of what they owned was not particularly valuable, but I have seen families break up over less. I have also seen people hold onto things well past the time when they still bring anyone pleasure, perhaps because they think the objects might be worth something someday, or the children might want them, or because they paid “good money” for them and it would be wasteful to get rid of something that is “still good.” These days there is also the guilt of adding one more thing to the landfills. I can definitely relate to all those reasons, but I’m trying to learn to let go. After all, every one of us will have to walk away from everything some day, whether we are ready or not.

For someone who claims not to care about material things, I sure have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years. As I look around my house at the cluttered tabletops, the crowded bookshelves, the overstuffed closets, I wonder what it would be like to leave it all and not look back.  Mostly I think it would bring a wonderful sense of freedom, although I suspect I would soon discover that there are, in fact, things I can’t live without, things I would miss terribly. Over the years I have often played this little game with myself in which I imagine coming home and finding that my house has burned to the ground or been blown away in a tornado. In these scenes, I am always grateful that no one was hurt, but immediately I begin to alternate between feelings of immense relief that I am no longer burdened with possessions and deep-seated grief over all those things that can’t be replaced.

Dolls

I  began buying porcelain dolls after my daughter Megan was stillborn twenty-seven years ago. The first was a red-headed doll named “Megan,” designed by Jane Zidjunas.  Then “Jennifer,” a blond doll by the same artist, followed by  “Nicholas the Winter Baby,” designed by Joan Ibarolle, and  “Amelia,” by Virginia Turner.

Most of the dolls are now packed away in the hall closet in their original boxes, with their “certificates of authenticity,” but the dolls Megan and Jennifer are standing about in the sewing room downstairs. I used to make clothes for them and dress them up for Christmas, but these days they wear their pastel overalls and flowered blouses and saddle oxfords year round. Occasionally I dust off their faces with a soft cloth and smooth their hair.

I did not buy these dolls because I thought they would be worth something someday; I bought them because I liked their looks, and they reminded me of things I had lost. I no longer have any of my childhood dolls, although I do have a doll that belonged to my grandmother’s sister Mary, who was born sometime around 1885 and died of typhoid when she was 18. I wonder if my grandmother, who was only five when her sister died, was allowed to play with this doll. Perhaps she was the one who broke the head and feet by accident one day.

The dolls sometimes remind me of an old woman I knew in Frankfort, Kentucky, a retired art teacher who volunteered at the library where I worked, recording books for the blind. She was one of those strong-willed southern ladies who donated thousands of hours to local charities each year and formed the backbone of society in those days. She had no children of her own but taught several generations of schoolchildren during her career.

She had been widowed at a young age but still lived in the house where she grew up, a large two-story frame house south of the river. Every Monday at four in the afternoon, she opened her house to friends and acquaintances who were welcome to drop by for tea and cake. She herself was diabetic and could no longer eat sweets but said that when she died, she was planning to eat her way around heaven—as soon as she kissed her husband hello.

One spring day about thirty years ago, my coworker Betsy and I decided to take off work early and go to Mrs. Frymyre’s house for tea.  We explained to our supervisor that she was one of our most faithful volunteers and we ought to show our respect by accepting her invitation to tea, but really, we were just curious to see inside her house, thinking that an artist’s’ home would be filled with beautiful objects and bright bits of clutter that might end up in collages or inspire paintings someday.

She greeted us at the door wearing a simple dress and a brightly colored silk scarf fastened near one shoulder with a large brooch. When we stepped into her living room, we were amazed to see hundreds of dolls of all sizes, sitting in little wicker chairs or lying in carriages or standing in their ball gowns under bell jars on tables. There were dolls seated on the steps leading upstairs; in the dining room were more dolls everywhere we looked.

And on the dining room table was a large tree branch painted with white enamel, with hundreds of elaborately decorated Easter eggs and ornaments hanging from the smaller branches and twigs.  Beneath the egg tree were dozens of Easter bunnies, pastel chicks, sugar eggs with dioramas inside, hand-painted ceramic cases shaped like eggs, bejeweled eggs on little stands. I felt like I was ten years old again, in the art room at my elementary school, dazzled by all the bright colors and beautiful shapes, inspired to create  something amazing.

Susanne E. Berger

The second book on my shelf (alphabetically speaking) is a book of poems called These Rooms by Suzanne E. Berger. I have no idea where this book came from. I don’t remember reading it before, and I have no particular associations with it. It was published by Penmaen Press in 1979, and a note on the back cover says that the first letterpress edition went out of print in six months. Of course, that doesn’t tell me much. I know that a letterpress edition could have been a very small run, 25 copies even, just enough to give her family and closest friends a copy. The back  is filled with accolades from  the right people and places: Maxine Kumin, Linda Pastan, Boston Globe, Ms, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, who praise the author’s “lyric intensity and fresh vision,” her “vivid and intense” imagery, her “mesmerizing lucidity.”  I fear I must be missing something (perhaps I am not a poet after all), because most of the poems in this volume feel to me like tight-fisted secrets, although I am unable to say quite why.

After reading this book straight through quickly, I feel a vague sense of loss, as though I have just wakened from a dream of someone dying, but I don’t know who died or how they were related to me. (After reading Baca’s book, by contrast, I feel that I know exactly what he has lost and how he felt about it and what he did after.)  I don’t get that same sense of shared experience from Berger’s work,  but there were two poems that reached out and grabbed me. One called “Desert” seems to be about a miscarriage. It begins with the narrator standing at the window, touching her belly,  “as quiet as a desert, as smooth and flowerless” and ends with an image of  the narrator imagining “a small mouthful of Kyrie there singing on in the dark” and tracing “it was nothing, nothing on the mute-faced glass.”

The other is called “New Pig Keeper,” which describes “a dreamless pig, a throne of flesh….the balding queen of fat.”  Although I love the descriptions of the pig in all her physicality, I don’t quite understand the pig keeper. Something about appetites, I suppose, and controlling them or being devoured by them? One of the most powerful stanzas in the poem describes the pig’s “freckled mouth…a universe of buds and warts, slop-tasters each and all.”

A quick search on the Internet lets me know that this was probably Suzanne’s first book, so I should not be so harsh. There is a power in her words, even when I can’t be sure where it’s coming from.  She published another book, Legacies, in 1984, and then, one day in 1985, as she leaned over to pick up her toddler, she felt a tear deep within the flesh across her back, which left her unable to stand or walk or sit, much less canoe or ice skate, as she had done before. The injury ultimately affected her relationship with her child and her husband, and challenged her sense of self, as well, as she struggled for years to regain mobility and learn to live with constant pain. Out of this experience, she wrote, The Horizontal Woman: The Story of a Body in Exile. Having had just a taste of what it is like to become suddenly disabled when I broke my leg a couple years ago, I can easily understand how an injury can change the whole trajectory of your life. Now I want to read about how a promising young poet suddenly became the horizontal woman.

Poetry

I have finished cataloguing the first three shelves of books. The first consists mostly of poetry books from the 1980s, several with inscriptions from the authors wishing me good luck with my writing. They make me want to read and write poetry again. I wonder how many other books these particular poets have written in the years since. Have they lived up to expectations? How many of these poets have since died or been forgotten? I wonder what it would be like if I had continued writing and publishing poetry after graduate school. Then I would have books with photos of myself as a young artist on the back covers and poems that revealed what I thought and felt twenty years ago, my whole life laid out for others to interpret.

Jimmy Santiago Baca

The first book on my shelf now (after alphabetizing and straightening) is a small volume of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martin & Meditations on the South Valley, with an introduction by Denise Levertov, published in 1987 by New Directions Press. The cover, based on a black-and-white photo by Migel Gandert, shows a close-up of a man’s back with three large tattooes etched into his skin.

The central tattoo, which extends along the man’s spine from just below his shoulder blades to his waist, is of Jesus dressed in long robes, with a disc-shaped halo framing the back of his head; he is holding a cross, looking off to one side. A second Jesus—this one dark-skinned with full beard and long straight hair, wearing a crown of thorns pushed down low on his forehead—appears on the man’s left shoulder. A third tattoo, on the right shoulder, is covered by a gold sticker announcing this book as the 1988 winner of the American Book Award.

Two other tattoos, on the backs of this man’s arms, are somewhat difficult to make out. The one on his left arm shows what might be a long-haired worker heading down a path, wearing t-shirt and loose pants, with a handkerchief sticking out of his right back hip pocket, but I can’t tell whether the man is wearing a hat or a halo tipped to one side. The tattoo on the right arm shows a bare-breasted woman wearing tight leggings and high heels and carrying something like a knife. There is a wide strap across her shoulders, between her breasts, and a large circular something on her back (a shield, perhaps).

I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect that I acquired this book while in graduate school studying creative writing under Garrett Hongo. He was always after us to find our own voices, rediscover the places we had come from, listen to the language and the rhythms of our people, tell our own stories—as Baca has surely done in his book. Hongo, of Japanese-Hawaiian descent, could be abrasive within a department that at the time consisted mostly of white men deeply entrenched in the Western canon, but I appreciate the way he encouraged us to seek the myth within the reality of our day-to-day lives.

As I read the two long narrative poems in this book, I am struck by Baca’s powerful voice, his startling images, his syntax and language so different from my own, his moving portraits of the people from his barrio. Denise Levertov in her introduction to this volume calls his work a “Hero’s Tale.” And it is epic in scope. While a distant voice reminds me that what seems exotic to me may seem ordinary to the people living through it and points out that my own life has been filled with experiences worth transforming to poetry, the ungracious, peevish part of me wonders if I could have written more or better if I had been abandoned by my parents at a young age, had been placed in an orphanage, had struggled for survival and ended up on the streets, had taught myself to read and write while in prison.

I do a quick Google search and learn that Baca is two years younger than I and has written ten books since this one was published: seven books of poems, a memoir, a book of stories and essays, a play; and that he regularly teaches writing workshops to Chicano youth. And what have I been doing all those years?

Button Boxes

This week I have been digging through my button boxes, trying to find six matching buttons for a sweater vest I knit earlier this winter. What is it about buttons? These are not particularly fine buttons, but I find them interesting. I like the way they feel in my hands, the way the small ones slip through my fingers, the light sound they make when they tumble over each other into the metal box. I like to think of the people whose hands have touched these buttons over the years, as they sewed them onto a garment or pushed them through the button holes to fasten their shirts or jackets.

I don’t remember where I got this particular button box, but I have vague happy memories of playing with such a button box when I was a child. Do people even keep button boxes any more? Used to be women would snip the buttons off old clothes to re-use on another garment and would save any good pieces of fabric to make scrap quilts. At least that’s how I imagine it was, although my maternal grandmother didn’t sew at all and my paternal grandmother always bought new fabric for her quilts. So where did this particular button box come from? I only recognize a few of the buttons from my own sewing projects. Perhaps my mother-in-law, who sewed for other women and always had extra fabric and notions lying around, gave it to me the year I decided to make Christmas stockings for my children. Perhaps I bought some of the pearl buttons at the antique mall for that project.

When I was eight, my aunt gave me and my brother beautiful red velvet Christmas stockings, lined with white satin. On the front of each was a large Christmas tree made entirely of antique buttons and sequins. When my brother and I posed in our pajamas with those stockings, holding them out for our parents to admire, beaming at the thought of all the wonderful gifts and candies that Santa would fill them with, they were so long they nearly reached the floor. We used to spend hours examining the buttons on our stockings, turning them this way and that in the colored lights from the Christmas tree, excited when we found we had buttons that matched, even more excited when we found buttons that the other didn’t have, each of us convinced that our stocking was the most beautiful, our buttons the most special.

The buttons in my button box are not nearly as fine. Mostly the box is filled with ordinary plastic buttons, the kind that would have been on dress shirts or wool coats or women’s jackets in the nineteen fifties. A few have embossed floral or geometric designs that I like. There are a couple metal buttons, one large button covered with blue and white polka-dot fabric, buttons shaped like leaves or bees or tiny handprints, many buttons made of pearl, a few buttons with rhinestones. There are no painted buttons or glass buttons. A quick web search tells me that I’m not the only one with a fascination for buttons and that button collecting gained popularity in the 1930s as a hobby that anyone could afford. The National Button Society was formed in 1938 and today has 3,000 members on four continents. There are button shows, including one this spring not too far from where I live. There are competitions and awards, magazines and newsletters. I discover that buttons are classified according to age, use, size, material, and design; and that age and use are specified by division. I learn that there is an online discussion group dedicated to button collecting.

I learn that I don’t know a thing about buttons, that the buttons that I cavalierly grouped together as all made of “plastic” could in fact be made of celluloid, cellulose acetate, casein, phenolic, amino, polyester, acrylic resins, polystyrene, nylon, polyclays, or ABS polymers (none of which mean anything to me). There are ways to test for these, of course, and if I cared enough, I could order a “Synthetic Polymers Handbook” that will give me “more information to aid in my identification efforts and general plastics education.” There are whole booklets filled with rules about how (or whether) to clean antique or vintage buttons, how to assemble a tray or mount your buttons, how to enter  button collections in competitions. Nearly 9,000 sellers are offering buttons for sale today on Ebay. Some buttons are listed individually; some by the pound. I am frankly overwhelmed. Now, instead of bringing me pleasure, my small box of buttons makes me anxious.

Shaker Box

When I was a girl, my mother and brother and I used to drive through the old Shaker village at Pleasant Hill in the summer on the way to visit my grandparents’ lake cabin, before the road was re-routed around the historic village. Even then, in those simpler days of childhood, I was struck by the peace surrounding the village, the stately buildings, the gently rolling hills, the quiet air space overhead.

Years later, the state library where I worked used to hold retreats at Shakertown, thinking, I suppose, that the place was so isolated we would have to face head-on any problems with our co-workers, because there was no place to get away, just a common room stocked with board games and cards. The managers even went so far as to assign roommates who were known to have had conflicts in the past. When we arrived for one of these dreaded retreats, the librarian I was to bunk with immediately began opening the many doors and drawers in the floor-to-ceiling cabinetry and peering under the beds in our room, “looking for bodies,” she said. I never could tell if she was joking or not.

Another memory of Shakertown involves my in-laws, who complained bitterly the whole weekend that there was no television and therefore “nothing to do.” When my husband and I couldn’t stand it any more and decided to go out for a walk after dark, his parents worried out loud about tree limbs blowing down out of the ancient trees and knocking us in the head. Later, after we had returned to the room uninjured, they worried that our two-year-old would fall out of the high poster bed onto the hardwood floor and get a concussion and then how would we ever get him to the hospital, and where was the hospital, even. The pictures from that weekend show my son, wearing a spring green corduroy jacket with a hood, climbing the white rail fence against a painfully blue sky.

I don’t remember when I got my Shaker box, but I love the smooth oval shape, the fine-grained cedar, the tight-fitting lid. It is medium size, about 3¾” deep x 9½” long x 6½”  across. Although this is the only Shaker box I have, I picture it in the middle of a tower of other oval boxes, in descending sizes, one on top of the other . It is made of a thin piece of sweet-smelling wood that has been bent into shape and is held together by brass tacks where the tapered ends of the wood overlap. On the outside of the box, the end has been trimmed into three points, each point held down by four brass tacks. The lid is constructed like the box itself, an overlapping piece of thin wood, with four brass tacks holding it together; the top has a wide stripe in the grain that is lighter than the rest of the wood and runs the length of the box.

I always loved the simplicity of the Shaker design, the clean lines in their rooms, the lack of clutter, the wooden pegs along the wall for hanging ladder-back chairs. But I never thought about what they would have kept in their drawers and boxes. Something practical, I suspect—sewing goods, perhaps, or garden seeds. Not like the wild assortment of things I found when I opened this box for the first time in many years. The only thing of any real value is an 1890 Morgan silver dollar (which I earned in third grade for writing out the multiplication table faster than anyone else in my class). Most of the other objects have only sentimental value; some don’t even have that, since I can’t remember where they came from, what they were supposed to signify, why I put them in this box in the first place.

And now I don’t know what to do with them all: my baby shoes and a  hospital bracelet made of tiny pink beads and larger white beads strung on a cotton thread, spelling out my maiden name; a silver Tinkerbell charm that I got at Disneyland when I was seven; five tiny umbrellas made of balsa wood spokes covered with tissue paper; an address book with names of friends I had in high school; a miniature clip-on bow tie that my ex-husband might have worn as a child in the early 1950s; my older son’s plastic hospital bracelet from one of the times he broke his arm in preschool; necklaces my sons made for me out of tumbled stones; hand-painted combs and beaded barrettes I bought at art fairs when I wore my hair long and straight; bits of broken jewelry (a sweater clasp, a Wizard of Oz charm bracelet, a dove of peace with inlaid stones, a thin brass chain, a single earring with two interlocking red hearts); a set of “mom’s pins” my younger son earned in boy scouts, attached to a red ribbon; book marks; a miniature book about the seasons, printed in German; Army insignia from my older son’s time in the cavalry; sympathy cards for pets buried in my back yard; a hand-forged nail; a tiny whorled shell; a starfish; a smooth white stone; a buckeye; a blue irridescent “dragon’s tear.

Rare Books

Compared to my mother, who taught literature for forty years, and many of my friends and colleagues, who are avid readers and writers, my collection of books is rather paltry. It cannot even be called a proper collection, having neither theme nor organizing principle. Nor do the books on my shelves adequately  represent my reading life, as many of my favorite titles are missing, and some of the books I own I do not care to read.

I have lately begun choosing books mostly by their covers. I limit myself to the new acquisitions shelf at the public library, either nonfiction or fiction, and I choose books that feel right in my hands, books that have simple, well designed covers, and elegant typography; books of just the right size, with pages that fall open in a pleasing way without cracking the spine.

I usually read the blurbs on the back cover and the first paragraph of the book, but those tend to sway me less than the overall look and feel of a book. I have rejected books on interesting topics or by authors I enjoy when the type was too cramped or the inside margins too tight or when the book was too heavy to hold while reading in bed or in the bath.  But I have also discovered wonderful books this way that I might not have found otherwise, including an inspiring book called The Zookeeper’s Wife, about the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved hundreds of people from the Nazis; an extraordinary novel called Let the Great World Spin, which opens with a breathtaking image of a tightrope walker stepping out onto a cable stretched between the World Trade Center towers; and an exhilarating book called Every Living Thing, which presents portraits of individual scientists in their obsessive quest to catalog life.

In my own quest to catalog life, I have decided to start a database of the books I own, and I am finding it surprisingly satisfying to pull each book off the shelf and open it up to locate the pertinent information. Some of these books I have not opened in many years; some of them exhale a musty breath that reminds me of my grandfather’s books that lined the back hallway of the house near the small college where he taught. Some books I remember well; others I have no memory of having read. A few have personalized autographs from the authors, encouraging me to continue with my writing. So far, I have only entered data on about half the books from a single shelf, mostly poetry books accumulated while I was in graduate school. I had not thought of my books as being in any particular order, certainly not by library school standards. What a surprise, then, to find that at least some of them are arranged chronologically, like the record collection in High Fidelity.

As I examine each book (front and back covers, title page, copyright page, CIP information, colophon), I recall many pleasant days spent in the stacks during library school when I studied rare books and bibliography, history of books and printing, and special collections. I especially loved going into the rare books room at the University, where I would sign in and then put on a pair of white gloves to keep the oils from my hands away from the pages, and the curator would bring out a single precious book at a time. In the quiet reading room, I would marvel at the hand-tooled leather or gold-leafed cloth cover, the deckled pages sometimes gilded with gold, the marbled endpapers, the hand-sewn bindings, the thick creamy watermarked paper, the decorated letters; I wondered how many hands had held this same book over the years. I would run my fingers lightly over the pages, like a blind woman reading Braille, and feel the impressions of each letter where it had been pressed into the damp paper.

One of the happiest times in my life was during an eight-week course in letterpress printing at the King Library Press at the University of Kentucky. I loved the weight of the composing stick in my hand and the soft click as I set each letter upside down and backwards in the stick, line by line. For my individual project, I printed Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October. The class printed a commemorative chapbook for an upcoming program scheduled at the King Library Press, with each of us setting the type for a single page. We then gathered our individual pages together and laid them in the sewing frame, and the instructor showed us how to sew the signature. The page I set was about oranges at Christmas.

After the course was over, I bought a small printing press somewhere, fully intending to print broadsides and chapbooks and poetry books. I wanted to learn more about the art of bookbinding, printing, calligraphy, papermaking, woodblock prints, engraving. I wanted to try my hand at gold leaf. I wanted to collect beautiful books. I did not want to read mass-produced books like the “yellows” and “bloods” that were printed so cheaply during the nineteenth century, books intended for a new mass reading public, books that people destroyed as they read, by tearing off each page and throwing it away. My advisor, Dr. Robert Cazden, had referred to that period as the “nadir” of printing. If he were still alive today, I wonder what he would have to say about E-books and all they represent. I’m thinking he would not be impressed.

A New Year

I have taken down most of my Christmas decorations and packed the ornaments away under the stairs in a plastic box with a green lid. On the lid is a label made of masking tape on which one of my sons once wrote the words, “Traditional Ornaments” in his confident childscript. It always makes me smile, wondering what the word “traditional” means to an eight-year-old. This year I decided to take the time to sort through everything and only pack away those things that still bring me joy. The rest I may sell on Ebay or give away to friends and family. I had already mailed away two small boxes of ornaments and lights to my sons before Christmas. Both have recently moved into new apartments and do not have money to spend on anything frivolous; I thought they might enjoy some of the ornaments we used to hang on our tree when they lived at home. I hope they found some joy in the objects; it was not my intent to burden them with mere possessions.

When I was young, I enjoyed collecting Christmas ornaments to commemorate travels or special moments of my life, and I looked forward to unwrapping the memories each year when I put up my tree. The year my dad moved out, my mother and I both put up live trees for the first time (one in my bedroom and one in the living room), and I bought several ornaments from an import shop in Lexington, Kentucky, for my very own tree: a wooden crèche inside a walnut half; angels made of tiny pinecones spray-painted gold; a small wooden dwarf with a long beard, a tiny pipe, and wire glasses; and several dozen small golden balls. Each year after that I would add to the collection, but I never wrote down where I got each ornament or what it was supposed to commemorate, thinking I would never forget. The years my first husband and I lived in the antique store on a tree-lined street named Rosemont Gardens, I kept the ornaments out year round, on small ledges that lined the kitchen walls and were intended for displaying decorative plates; I was devastated when our puppy chewed up an entire set of German musicians carved out of native woods, leaving only one tiny violin undamaged.For a while, I looked for a replacement set but never saw another just like it.

As I sort through the ornaments, it is most difficult to know what to do with the angels, beginning with the littlest baby angel, a wee blond thing cradled in the crest of the moon, acquired the Christmas after our daughter Megan was stillborn one silent day in May. The following year another baby angel decked our tree, this time a red-headed boy sitting on an acrylic cloud, after we lost our son Morgan in October. And every year after, angels continued to arrive in pairs: ceramic baby angels swinging on candy canes, country angels wearing gingham, angels woven out of straw, paper-mâché angels in stiff gowns, batiked angels, angels embroidered with shiny red threads in China, angels molded out of clear plastic, shimmering gold angels, dazzling glass angels. If they had lived, by now Megan would be twenty-six, Morgan twenty-five. When I meet new people and they ask how many children I have, I still pause (wanting to blurt out “four”) before answering, “two: a son who is thirty and a son who is twenty-three,” all the while seeing the shadowy outlines of their siblings in the space between.