I have to be careful to not say that I have a poor memory. I have memories like a collage that is reordered with every consideration. What falls into place behind me are like discrete lead fragments drawn to a magnet.
Though it isn’t often I look back. Dredging.
It’s odd though, how sometimes no matter where you turn—what (or whom) you were trying to avoid will find you: in a film that you slip into the DVD, hoping for a bit of an escape; in the book you take off the shelf, looking for distraction or comfort.
I sat down here to write about a book. I suppose that is why all these thoughts, all these memories are forming. Books have a way of collecting our webs of experience between two pieces of cardboard.
I believe I was 10. I remember the house well, because I lived there twice. They say you have to build memories, like maps, recollecting/re-collecting and tracing patterns of neurons in the brain. I can walk the layout of the house in my mind still today, running my fingers over the sticky, humid walls on Orange Drive.
Unlike the women in a lot of stories like mine, my mother didn’t have a revolving door when it came to men. But that one man she should have left for good, she returned to.
And when she did return—when we returned—there was another man living in our garage. He had a key to the front door so he could use our bathroom when he needed. He paid me to tidy his room once a week. To collect the beer cans, and neatly stack the Playboys. That was all. A harmless man. The men who seem to have all their ducks in a row: they’re generally the ones to worry about.
But I’m veering off, as memories lead us to do on occasion.
I bought it at a yard sale with my own money — ah, I see now why the digression: I owe my most prized possession to Budweiser and Playboy.
A Gift of Joy. The first owner stamped his name on the end page and the title page. David W. Jones. But it’s Helen Hayes’ autobiography. It is as much anthology as autobiography. It’s full of monologues and poems she loved to perform. She includes Hecuba’s speech from The Trojan Women, and describes performing it in a whisper for friends on the ruins of the stage at Epidaurus, Greece. Those pages are marked with the marginalia of my 16-year old self, who performed it in a classroom in a backwater high school in Kentucky.
I’m not sure if I’d known who Helen Hayes was when I bought the book. It’s possible. I had a sitter when I was six or so. She had season tickets to the local theater in L.A. And she had a player piano. I listened to roll after roll of show tunes, and I sang along until her own kids got home from school every day. In those days, I was sleeping on an army cot in a walk-in closet with love beads hanging in the doorway. We had black lights in the living room so the pot plants would thrive. But the sitter’s house had a manicured lawn beyond the big, sliding-glass doors. It had hard wood floors, and everything smelled crisp. I might have learned about Helen Hayes in the sitter’s living room. I might have held on to Ms. Hayes as a symbol of middle-class genteelness.
Then again, I might not have known anything about her. I might have picked up the book, read the first lines, and simply understood:
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
There is no one left to ask who it was that read to me. But someone did. Someone must have held me close, and helped me make all those neural connections between books and comfort.
Books are the one, safe place to confront your fears. A book is a therapist office. A confessional. And the stories sprawled over the pages offer absolution for being human.
The Gift of Joy, with its warped and tattered cover, feels different from all the new and used books I have since sought out online, and had shipped overseas to read to my own children: books by Dr. Seuss, Judith Voigt. Although, I admit that I cried so much reading Charlotte’s Web to my first son, I couldn’t bring myself to choke through it with my second. (But that was E.B.White’s doing, not nostalgia.) Only a few years ago, I found on E-Bay the brown-marble covered Children’s Bible with the illustrations that had given me so many nightmares. The horned Satan hovering over the cliff.
The Gift of Joy is the only sacred relic in my library. It’s one of only two objects I have from my childhood: the machine-sewn quilt my grandmother made for me before her back gave out and she gave up sewing, and this book. Everything else is a cheap replica.
“And the Word was God.” And Helen Hayes explains how she misunderstood the lines from St. John. But I am not sure it is a misunderstanding. The Word is mysterious web: the dark forms and the shadows. It is Connection in Absence.
And what better definition is there for a truly unconditional love?
(This began as an attempt to write a prose piece for Silver Birch. But it got out of hand.)