Fifty years ago, as an 18-year-old Radcliffe College freshman, I struck up a conversation with the man who would become my husband after we learned we were both from Baltimore. I have not lived in that city for decades, but last October, in an accidental byproduct of Covid-19, I found myself transported back to the books I had left behind there.
Actually, the books came to me, neatly packed in—count ’em—27 boxes that also included the familiar art works, photographs, knickknacks, personal papers, and other objects from the apartment where my late husband’s recently deceased mother had lived. These possessions, in all their memory-prompting power, brought me to my knees. They had arrived in my Manhattan apartment because—well—where else would they go? It is never easy to rummage through once-loved belongings of long-loved family members, but acknowledging their value, however intangible, is also a final responsibility to the dead.
My dead. My late husband, Peter, who was 49 at his death in 1999, had been the only child of his parents, Lil and Erwin, and our son, Edward, had been their only grandchild. Erwin had died in 2012; Lil hung on until this past March, her death at 91 a casualty of advanced Alzheimer’s and old age rather than Covid-19. But with the onset of the pandemic, neither Edward (who lives in Los Angeles) nor I could travel to Baltimore to attend the graveside funeral. Nor could we safely arrange to spend time in person sifting through the contents of a home still filled with the stuff of her life but now bare of her presence.
And at least in the abstract, the physical logistics of the transfer had seemed relatively easy. True, I had no attic, basement, or garage for storage. But I did have a guest room, rendered guest free by the pandemic. No problem.
Famous last words. The boxes the deliverymen carted in quickly spilled over into the hallway, dining room, living room, even a bathroom shower stall, until I could barely take a step without tripping over one, or being tripped up by ghostly mirages of my in-laws themselves having taken up residence in my guest room.
This double logjam of the physical and the metaphysical intensified with the opening of each new box. My every desk, table, and countertop was quickly co-opted by what a stranger may have deemed a flea market’s worth of treasures. Yet these were also the artifacts and souvenirs of the daily routines, celebratory rituals, and journeys that had animated my in-laws’ lives across the decades.
Similarly, the piles and piles of books that zigzagged across my living room floor struck me as nothing less than an illustrated timeline of their lives. Here were their own high school yearbooks from the 1930s, and then, 35 years later, the high school and college yearbooks of their son. They chronicled a lifetime of interests, including a love of literature handed down from generation to generation. Witness the Depression-era set of the complete works of Mark Twain, pored over by Lil as she was growing up, and then later by Peter, as attested to by his studious marginalia throughout the pages of a quirky favorite, Pudd’nhead Wilson.
And amid all this, here were bits and pieces of my own history, perhaps most of all in the many gifts of books, lovingly inscribed to Peter, to cheer him through the long course of his cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He had already graduated by then, while I still had a semester to go, and by the time I got my degree, Peter had also come through the worst of his ordeal. Just a few weeks later, though, my mother was diagnosed with end-stage colon cancer. I moved back to Baltimore, spending the next year toggling between daily visits to my mother and then Peter, and in between working toward a graduate degree at Hopkins.
No doubt it was this mixing and matching of time between households that had led to so many volumes from my childhood bedroom bookshelves finding their way to my in-laws’ library—and ultimately into the boxes I was still unpacking in New York. A fancy illustrated version of Gulliver’s Travels. My old Modern Library copy of Les Miserables, dust cover still intact, a classic I had powered through in junior high with more determination than comprehension.
And then I stopped, or was stopped, as I lifted out a small but heavy book encased in a pewter cover. It was studded with gem-like stones of turquoise and engraved—front, back, and spine—with Hebrew lettering. On the front, an ornately braided rendering of the Ten Commandments was crowned with Jewish stars and surrounded by 12 miniature candy-square-sized images of each of the ancient 12 tribes of Israel. This same border enclosed the back cover’s centerpiece: a depiction of a menorah. Three Hebrew letters inscribed on the spine spelled out the acronym, Tanakh, for the book’s contents, all three parts of the Hebrew Bible: the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).
I immediately recognized this decorative style of Israeli-Judaic art as having been popular in the 1960s, especially as gifts for a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah. I assumed this one had been given to Peter.
And yet the empty oval where one of the turquoise studs should have been seemed to remind me of something. I opened the cover and let out a startled cry.
Here, taped inside, was a faded pale blue envelope, addressed to me. The slightly unwieldy handwriting belonged to—my grandmother. Huh?
The envelope, with its yellowed edges, had not been sealed. I carefully slipped out the matching folded note card, personalized with a gold K for my mother’s family name, Katz. It read, “Dear Diane, Grandpa saw this Bible and thought it would be nice for you to have for the future to remember us by, dear, as you will have occasions to look up something in it as time goes by. Use in Good Health. Love & Kisses, Grandpa and Grandma.”
There was no date. But time had gone by, this was the future, and I did remember.
That missing turquoise stone had nudged forth a hazy memory of tracing with my little girl fingers the ever-so-slight impressions left by the delicately etched decorative curlicues. Closer and closer I would bring my eyes to make out each tiny line of the roaring lion of Judah with its wavy tail, or the small-scale burst of sunrays over an undulating sea to represent Reuben’s tribe. In doing so, I had accidentally displaced that stone. I had tried to glue it back in, but it would not adhere to the metal, and the stone was ultimately lost.
And now the Bible and the note had found their way back to me, a seemingly magical journey wrought not by time travel but by the long-ago logistics of my own travels between households, and the full-circle passage of time itself.
Grandma was right that there would be—and now had been—occasions when I would seek out passages from the Bible, even if not from this very copy, nor would she have ever wished to predict that it would begin with her daughter’s, my Mom’s early death less than a year after her fatal diagnosis. Subsequently there had been other deaths—my grandparents, and then Peter’s, and then more recently my in-laws. And so many losses in the course of the ongoing pandemic.
Yet there had also been celebrations: when I married Peter, when we adopted our son Edward, and when, after being widowed for eight years, I had married Phil.
I opened the Bible itself now, leafing through its nearly 2,000 pages of tiny print, each laid out in dual columns of Hebrew on one side, English translation on the other. I found what I was looking for: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life that both thou and thy seed may live.” [Deuteronomy 30: 19] I could not help but think that for all its terrible curses, the pandemic had also allowed me to recover these blessings from the past that I could carry forward to the future, and all courtesy of the 27 boxes whose ever-emerging memories, I realized, I had only just begun to unpack.
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