Saturday Library Update

"When an old person dies, a library burns down."

That's how I remember the line from Robert McCammon's Boy's Life, which was one of the most beautiful novels I've ever read.  (in fact, I just bought it again from Amazon)

The idea, of course, isn't that the decedent's survivors go on an arson rampage against libraries, but that when somebody old–let's call it "experienced"–dies, with them goes a wealth of stories, wisdom, history, recipies, maybe poetry.

Thank God, I'm not writing another eulogy here.  I swear, I've written more rememberences for friends in the last few years than I've wanted to.  I'm glad to do it, to verbalize what they meant to me and celebrate their lives, but I hate that they died.

My friend is going to her first funeral today.  I have no doubt it won't be her last. 

My first funeral was when I was 17 years old.  It was spring break of my senior year in high school, and I was working at the golf course.  I'd just hooked up a cart to its charger, and I was walking back to get the next one, when I saw my dad walking toward me.  Wha? Why was he there, I wondered.  He complimented me on the new tires I'd gotten on my car earlier that day.  Um, thanks.  "Is there someplace private we can talk?"

We went into the club storage room, and he told me that my grandfather had died.  My mother's father.  The award-winning sportswriter, greatest teller of stories, bourbon afficionado.  My idol.  My grandmother came home from work and found him dead on the floor at 67 years old. 

My dad broke down as he told me.  He said we were leaving that night to drive to Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia–my grandmother's house.  We went into the pro shop, and my dad explained to my boss that I had to leave.  He sent me off with his blessings.

I didn't cry.  I went into some sort of uncharacteristically pragmatic mode, where I just took care of business.  I had a ticket in my pocket to see The Pretenders two days later.  Obviously, I wouldn't be using it.  I drove out to the softball park and gave it to my friend, Mike.  (He ended up scalping it and making a tidy profit, bless him)  I got back home, and my mom was crying.  My brother was crying, but trying to hide it. 

Family friends were there in abundance, consoling, making sandwiches for the trip.  Ham sandwiches.  I like ham sandwiches, thank God.  My mom cried and hugged me.  I went into my room to pack.  I put on a George Thorogood blues song called "The Sky is Crying." I packed my copy of Camus' "The Stranger." My mom worked the phone.  Every time she told the story, she cried again.  My dad cried when he explained it.

I never did. 

We used to drive the 600 miles from our house in Sarasota to my grandmother's house in Ft O a few times a year.  It's a straight shot up I-75, and I still remember the little oases of civilization: Bradenton, Apollo Beach, Tampa, Brooksville, Ocala, Gainesville, Lake City, Valdosta, Perry, Tifton, Macon, Atlanta, Dalton, then Ft O. One of the most beautiful rest areas anywhere is on the Macon bypass, I-475.  It verdant and piney and hilly, like the gateway to a different world.

What was different about this trip was that my dad "let" me drive most of the way.  For a family trip? Driving at night? Unprecedented. 

I got us there, though, safe and sound.  It was probably 6:30, the spring sky predawn gray, and I remember thinking my grandmother looked like a wounded animal the way she cried and hugged us.  She looked lost, scared, crushed.  Family and friends brought food–including many more hams (what is it with Southern Protestants and hams?)–and offered condolences.  There were more tears.

I became the errand boy.  Any chance I had to get out of that house, away from the tears and hams and sadness, I took it.  The check-out girls at K-Mart knew me.  When we needed plastic cups, I'd go. Paper plates? I'd go.  Somebody needs to be picked up at the airport? Tom's Taxi–fast, friendly, and efficient.

The visitation was bittersweet.  They did a good job with my grandfather's body.  He was wearing his green blazer, and he looked like he was asleep, having a pleasant dream. The air was sickly sweet, thick with too many clashing flowers, and the room was stuffy and packed.

The funeral procession was a mile long, winding from Ft O to the Chattanooga National Cemetery.  I remember people pulled over and put their hands over their hearts as we passed.  And it was cold and clear, the sky a topaz blue…


And that's just one book in my library.  I don't go around with that memory open.  Talking to my friend last night, it was like pullling a worn book off a shelf, opening it, and seeing the detail anew. 

When my grandfather died, we all knew we'd lost somebody truly special–he'd covered Super Bowls, World Series, Indy 500's, you name it–nobody else had the stories he did.

But every life has books to be opened.  Maybe it's how my grandmother learned how to make dressing from her mother, or how my other grandfather put his brother through dental school. 

My friend was in New York City a few weeks ago, and she updated Twitter frequently.  It was kinda cool being here in Florida, sitting at my desk, living my normal life, and getting a Tweet that she was walking in Central Park, or just coming out of "Wicked," or sharing a picture of the Empire State Building as seen from her hotel window. I got the snapshots, the book's jacket blurb.  A lifetime from now, those memories will be treasured books for her to share with her grandchildren…"Let me tell you about hot. It was the record summer heatwave of 2010, and I walked from the U.N. back to my hotel.  I saw…"

Time has passed, and somehow I've ended up with the storyteller gift, though nothing like my grandfather.  I think, as I acquire and season my own memories, I appreciate hearing how things were different for other people.

I guess I'm using my library card while I still can.  Happy reading, and have a good weekend.  

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12 Responses to “Saturday Library Update”

  1. Well said, Tom. Makes this 71 year old library think it's time he did his inventory.

  2. I bet it's an extremely interesting collection there in the Snowy stacks.

  3. Thanks for so often giving me a card to the Library of Tom. πŸ™‚

  4. Mostly pretty dull, Tom, but there are a few good tales to be told here and there. At my age though, you do tend to forget that what seems to be common place is sometimes of great interest to those who didn't live through those times, such as the second World War and the Vietnam War. No, I didn't fight in them, but the memories of events on the home front are still vivid..

  5. You're always welcome. Enjoy your river.

  6. My grandfather–the one mentioned above–was in World War 2, as a corpsman after D-Day. I never heard him mention it, but my mom explained that this was why he was so squeamish about blood and guts in movies. One night years later, I found scrapbooks of letters he wrote to my grandmother from Europe. It was hard to believe it was the same man. As far as Vietnam, I've worked with a lot of people who served there. Nothing romantic about it, just hell only with more snakes.

  7. You definitely have the storyteller gene.

  8. I have the Bourbon gene, too. I just stopped using that one. πŸ˜‰

  9. Glad you kept the one you did. πŸ™‚

  10. What beautifully written memories about your grandfather. He sounds like he was such a wonderful man! I am glad you got to know him as long as you did.

  11. I often wish I had listened more closely to my Peepaw's stories. My Grandma and Pappy both died while I was young, so I got hand me down stories. My Peepaw died just before I turn 18. I didn't cry either… I was also the errand runner. I remember keeping an eye on the little ones so they didn't fall into anyone's freshly dug hole at the cemetery and I remember being the one with eyes dry enough to drive.There was a little white butterfly that sat near us as we buried his ashes. As we finished up the service, the little guy fluttered away. I remember that most vividly because it was almost as if my Peepaw (a big boned dude who had to be over 6 feet tall and had shoes so big, I could never imagine filling them) had been turned into this tiny, floating butterfly. It was quite a lovely feeling.But the fabulous thing about Peepaw is… he seems to have injected a little bit of himself in all the people who knew him. That might be my favorite thing about him… he was infectious (in a non-diseased way, of course). πŸ™‚

  12. Country Cinderella Says:

    This was a great post. It was very thought provoking and made me appreciate the loss of my Dad all the more. I know appreciate may seem like the wrong word but it is appropriate for how I felt reading this. My Dad passed on April 2 of this year after a 6 month battle with a rapidly degenerative neurological disease. I felt the pain of his loss but I sometimes worry that I do not feel it enough now as the months have passed. Reading your post I realized just how much I do still miss him, and all the books from his life library.

    I am glad I discovered this post of yours while I was linking your blog to mine in our new WordPress world.

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