My boys keep a stack of books in the bathroom next to the toilet, and I think they even read them occasionally. Like, if the battery on their iPhones are dead. Turns out most of these tomes are from my late father’s library, and bear titles like The Collected What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
Open a book up, and you will likely find a palimpseste – a layer – of inscriptions: first the ones I made to my dad – my dad who lived and died in Norway – when I originally gifted him the book in hand on any of my many visits, and then, after he died, my second inscription dedicating it to one of my sons, usually the one who would like the given topic. Each dédicace was written in profound sincerity; my words desperately trying to convey the yearnings seeking to link ideas and a certain mindfulness between him and them, with me suspended somewhere in-between, acting as a conduit of a metaphysical gene pool I imagined no ocean between them could weaken. This was on your grandfather’s mind. Bring it into yours.
When my dad died, my sister and I spend a mere day going through his limited belongings. Clean clothes, save the jeans he had last worn before he left us – now hanging lonely on the chair next to his bed – were neatly folded in a spartan wire drawer system in the hallway of his minuscule apartment. Old newspapers were in the basket by the door, and he had done the dishes in his efficiency kitchen that night, when my sister had shared her last meal with him. While we were cleaning the rental apartment the day I arrived, listening to music and scrubbing and sorting and crying in a rhythm I seem to recall as feeling real, honest, and necessary, she told me he had mostly just sipped a beer to keep her company while she ate. It had been a sweet evening, even though he admitted he didn’t feel great. He had told me so for a while; it was as if he was preparing me each time I called him from my home in the U.S. But he always tried to switch the topic to how I was doing. “And the boys, all is well?””All is well.”
I kneeled on his bedroom floor and scrubbed away the blood stain from where he had fallen, the spot where my sister had found him just a day or two before. It was my last cellular contact with him. I wanted to scrape it and touch it with my fingers. Smell it. But I didn’t. I just kept wetting the floor rag, rapidly rubbing and desperately hoping the now deep dull red, almost brown color, would disappear before my sister came into the room…until it eventually faded away and his DNA dissolved in the murky waters of the utilitarian blue plastic pail beside me.
Most of his things went to the Salvation Army or in the trash, except a few personal belongings which I felt the most attached to, probably a symptom of me having lived away for so long. My youngest son got his jeans and my middle son his hat. I have his bread knife and some precious framed photos of him and my kids I had given him over the years, and I kept the old cigar box we found, full of old love letters from his girlfriend when he was in the army in the 1950s; a treasure trove of sweet beckonings from his first love. I also brought many of his books back to the States; books I had carried one by one over the last twenty years whenever I came to visit, knowing one of the few things that brought him pleasure aside from his two daughters, our kids, and his close friends, was the printed word, a good scotch or a cold beer.
My favorite is an average size book, light in weight for a hardcover, whose book jacket is missing, and whose red spine is loose and cracking in the seams where it joins the once cream colored parchment-like cover, tattered and discolored from my father’s handling it over years. His finger marks seem visible, a slight grayish hue perhaps from the oils in the skin of his fingers; a dark spot in the top right corner that could be coffee, or food, or perhaps spit. Who knows? Now these textured signs of a life spent in the company of a book he enjoyed offer a strange sense of connection between him and us. I imagine the book is discolored from being leafed through late at night or early in the morning, my father lying on his right side in his twin bed, book under the reading light, with a pair of cheap readers pressed against the bridge of his nose leaving a deep, red imprint. Times when its pages provided some comforting, humanizing companionship against insomnia, an impending hangover or the loneliness of the next day.
The Book of General Ignorance is said to challenge “what most of us assume to be verifiable truths in areas like history, literature, science, nature, and more; a witty… compendium of how little we actually know about anything.” And that, in the end, was his message: a sense of wonder about how little we actually know about anything. If my boys should carry on any legacy from their Norwegian grandfather, even if it’s while they’re sittin’ on the can, it should be to keep an open, imaginative mind and remember that everything is relative. And this, he would say, is most easily achieved by keeping a good book within arm’s reach.