My Father’s Bookcase

barefootboyLast month, my husband, daughter and I moved from the lovely and rather large Victorian house that we rented for three years.  Three years is the longest I’ve lived anywhere in 20 years, and I was settled and happy.  Finances didn’t allow us to buy the house when our landlords put it on the market, so we bought a quaint and smaller house  that we could afford that I am finally settling into.

Like many old New England homes, our rental had a built-in floor to ceiling book case that held my 300+ books.  As I added more, some had to lay on top of those that were aligned perfectly, spine-out, always alphabetical by author.  I liked the jumbled and full look of my shelves and loved standing in front of them when I needed something new to read.

I have amassed many books along the trajectory of my life, most of them for free.  When I was in college I worked in a wonderful little bookstore in a small, boxy, two-story mall, the only retail job I’ve ever had.  I worked on Friday nights while Happy Hour raged above at a bar where students drank beer out of fishbowls.  I knew when the deejay needed a break because “American Pie,” would play for 8 minutes and 33 seconds, a bunch of drunken 18-21-yr olds singing along.

While I still worked there, the owner told me that he was closing the store for good, and that I could take anything that I wanted.  Anything.  At that time I think I fancied myself a bit of an intellect and grabbed some philosophy and a lot of “literature.”  I’m pretty sure I still have many of them, unread, waiting until my brain has the patience to take them all in.

After college I got a job in academic publishing that involved traveling to trade shows where I would sit and smile at a booth in the basement exhibit halls of decent hotels with our key new titles displayed proudly on white metal bookstands.  The titles were at the forefront of subjects like linguistics and random esoteric topics of history and religion that I knew absolutely nothing about, the conference attendees stodgy and tweedy professors.

There were mainstream publishers exhibiting books as well and I became friends with a guy my age who worked for the umbrella publisher of all of the most popular trade imprints still standing at the time, before each had become gobbled up, like a game of Pac-Man, by the remaining behemoths of the publishing universe.  Before packing up at the end of the conference he would let me amass a box of anything, again, ANYTHING that I wanted, and would pack it up and send it to me.  These titles probably make up 70% of my collection.  For many years after, he would send me first editions of books that he knew I would like, my most prized being a signed copy of “Maus” by Art Spiegelman with  his little self-portrait on the inside page.

Last month, the night before our movers came, I stood in front of my bookcase, finding myself in tears as I took each book down and put them in a box, still keeping the order they had been in for three years.  Our new house has no built-ins and for the time being, no room to have any constructed, so tucking them away in boxes knowing they’d end up in our basement was surprisingly very tragic for me.  It’s not pretension that makes me want to keep them public, but to me, books make a home, make me whole.

In the house where I spent my first 13 years, my parent’s marriage still intact, my father’s bookcase was a source of wonder and intrigue for me.  It was in our den, a room I spent endless hours in, adjacent to our brick fireplace.  My mother wasn’t much of a reader so the collection had to have reflected my father’s curiosities and interests.  He has always been a brilliant seeker of knowledge and at 83 he keeps going and going, taking classes and still reading endlessly.

I don’t know how the books were arranged but the spines and shapes and sizes of the books were a fixture in the landscape of my childhood.   Some of the titles made no sense to me, in particular a book titled “Barefoot Boy With Cheek.”  I pondered endlessly over what that could POSSIBLY mean, and with no internet or Wikipedia I think I just relinquished any possibility of figuring it out.   There was a boxed-set of world-religions, each with a different colored cover, including Islam and Judaism, that still sits on his bookshelf in Los Angeles where he has lived for over 30 years.  There was a biography of Abba Eban, that I don’t even think I realized was someone’s name.   “Helter Skelter,” “The Exorcist,” and “The Joy of Sex” were tucked away in a piece of furniture in a hallway and I discovered them at a fairly young age, and those are the ones I bothered to read.

My father has always championed knowledge.  My sister and I are avid readers always looking forward to the next great book.  Since my daughter has been of reading age, he has taken note of the New York Times bestseller list for her age group, and about 5 times a year she gets a box of four or five titles that he has picked for her.  She tears open those boxes with relish and when we moved, we had to buy her a bigger bookcase that she is incredibly proud of.

And Dad, in case you never got around to reading it, here it is:

The Barefoot Boy

BY JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER

Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy,—
I was once a barefoot boy!
Prince thou art,—the grown-up man
Only is republican.
Let the million-dollared ride!
Barefoot, trudging at his side,
Thou hast more than he can buy
In the reach of ear and eye,—
Outward sunshine, inward joy:
Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!
Oh for boyhood’s painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee’s morning chase,
Of the wild-flower’s time and place,
Flight of fowl and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell,
And the ground-mole sinks his well;
How the robin feeds her young,
How the oriole’s nest is hung;
Where the whitest lilies blow,
Where the freshest berries grow,
Where the ground-nut trails its vine,
Where the wood-grape’s clusters shine;
Of the black wasp’s cunning way,
Mason of his walls of clay,
Of gray hornet artisans!
For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy,—
Blessings on the barefoot boy!
Oh for boyhood’s time of June,
Crowding years in one brief moon,
When all things I heard or saw,
Me, their master, waited for.
I was rich in flowers and trees,
Humming-birds and honey-bees;
For my sport the squirrel played,
Plied the snouted mole his spade;
For my taste the blackberry cone
Purpled over hedge and stone;
Laughed the brook for my delight
Through the day and through the night,
Whispering at the garden wall,
Talked with me from fall to fall;
Mine the sand-rimmed pickerel pond,
Mine the walnut slopes beyond,
Mine, on bending orchard trees,
Apples of Hesperides!
Still as my horizon grew,
Larger grew my riches too;
All the world I saw or knew
Seemed a complex Chinese toy,
Fashioned for a barefoot boy!
Oh for festal dainties spread,
Like my bowl of milk and bread;
Pewter spoon and bowl of wood,
On the door-stone, gray and rude!
O’er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold;
While for music came the play
Of the pied frogs’ orchestra;
And, to light the noisy choir,
Lit the fly his lamp of fire.
I was monarch: pomp and joy
Waited on the barefoot boy!
Cheerily, then, my little man,
Live and laugh, as boyhood can!
Though the flinty slopes be hard,
Stubble-speared the new-mown sward,
Every morn shall lead thee through
Fresh baptisms of the dew;
Every evening from thy feet
Shall the cool wind kiss the heat:
All too soon these feet must hide
In the prison cells of pride,
Lose the freedom of the sod,
Like a colt’s for work be shod,
Made to tread the mills of toil,
Up and down in ceaseless moil:
Happy if their track be found
Never on forbidden ground;
Happy if they sink not in
Quick and treacherous sands of sin.
Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy,
Ere it passes, barefoot boy!
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2 Comments

  1. HOWSAK@aol.com

    Really enjoyed. Thanks and keep them coming.

  2. Kathy O'Connor

    Gail, I grew up with the same kind of overflowing bookcase, thanks to my dad- the newspaper printer,self made scholar and lover of poetry. John Greenleaf Whittier was one of his favorites! Falling asleep at night, I can hear him reciting the poem in your article as well as Barbara Frietche, The Children’s Hour, Daffodils,Octobers Party and many others! You are so lucky to still have your dad. Great article. Thank you.

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