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On Reading: Holding Hands with the Dead.

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Tim Singleton, co-chair of the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes On Reading for the last week of each month on the HoCoPoLitSo blog.

Recently, the siblings went through the home we grew up in. It was time to move on, that is to say, pack it all up and send it in new directions – keepsakes and sales. It is a task I wasn’t quite prepared for, a lot of work, certainly, but also an un-anticipatable rite of passage. Mom’s recently gone and dad has moved into a new place, size-suitable for one and already a wonderful nest of books with him heart and center. It is decorated with a number of precious memories, artifacts of the place that was, the life that is, time unstuck as it moves on, backwards and forwards in the present moment.

The sibling task, as you might imagine, was full of stories. Every single object had history. Our individual histories, our parent’s history, the family history. The six of us latched on to things that particularly resonated with our own hindsight, collected things that in an instant can take us back to the special place that is the family, that is growing into the world, gaining a sense of being from within the nestle of love and care and the forward tromp of formative years. Some of these stories we shared out loud. Some we let resonate in the silence within us, awed and full of emotion.

About this time it just so happened that I had picked up John Berger’s book Here is Where We Meet from one of my own shelves to have another go at reading. Grabbed it from a store when it came out and, for some reason, didn’t settle into it. The narrator visits/re-visits places important to his life and within those places re-meets those now dead who were once key to his own being. “The dead don’t stay where they are buried,” says his long-dead mother as she meets up with him in Lisbon for the first chapter. Pertinent, this time I was bewitched. Towards that chapter’s conclusion, she says, “Do us the courtesy of noticing us.” I love how a book casually picked up can provide such a parallel framework to where one is off the page. It is a breathtaking magic. My world was full of notice waiting to be noticed.

There’s a fork my Mother gave me a few years before she died. It is something that charmed me from the first time I saw it. There’s a curve to its tines, shaped over the decades and generations by vigorous beating against the side of mixing bowls, its mettle not full up to the task. When young, it was the curve that struck me – how cool – and I took in the science of the story: friction, hardness, softness. [Many years later, Mom would give me a copy of the The Dalkey Archive (Flan O’Brien) and I was amused by the bicycle-stealing policeman who was only being protective of the citizenry – you see, he understood the danger of friction and the exchange of molecules, bike riders and bikes shedding themselves into each other; he wanted to protect people from becoming bicycles. Hard to explain in a referentially clear way without the book in hand. Track it down, it’s a good read and will start you thinking. The fork, for us, was a perfect illustration of how this crazy idea was a truth.]

Later on I came to understand using that fork was a way the generations could hold hands across time, the gone and the present meeting in the mixed handle of effort. I’ll take it out and use it once in a while, though these days it is mostly artifact and talisman. All I have to do is look at it to reach back and hold on.

Going through the homestead I grabbed the copy of Wilkie Collins’ Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a Dover Paperback. It reminded me of those Dover catalogues we’d pour through once the mailman brought them to us (see how memory spills out of things?). Opening it, a note in one of the end pages reminded me I had given it to her as a Christmas present in 1984. It is one I hadn’t read, so I set to the task. By the looseness of the pages, it seems like it had been read a couple of times and that comforted me. It seemed a way to share the space and mind of this person now physically gone from the place of living, a way to hold on to a connective something and pass time together again. I imagined how she would have taken to the stories, thrilling in parts, tedious in others, ever so English and of their time throughout.

Books are on the way out, or so I hear. Maybe I’ll be one of the last to hang on to them, especially the keepsakes from the childhood home, the ones the parents once held up to their faces. For me, they are part mirror/window still reflecting/looking on that time and person, a way to reach out and hold on to what was and what is as we all pass through living and linger in the stories of our interconnected lives, a way of noticing and perpetuating each other.

 

Happy reading,

Tim Singleton, board co-chair

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