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In the beginning… it was a dark and stormy night… call me Ishmael… it is a truth universally acknowledged…. in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
These are all beginnings. Lines that have kicked off stories, taking readers by their imaginations and leading them into realms of thought and whole new worlds. Stories can be read from the safety of an armchair and promise adventure without the risk. We can follow the story, comfortably making friends with the characters, until an unexpected twist turns the story on end. The conflict builds into a climax to create the arch of the story. Our new fictional friends may suffer for the twist, but we readers love having a front seat to the action.
This gives us a break from the twists in our own lives, which often seem disorienting. We are the characters in this story away from the safety of our armchair and often our beginnings don’t make sense. We wish we could have anyone’s story but our own. It is a mishmash of storylines. Here we are in the beginning on a stormy night, and a man named Ishmael is going to tell you about universal truths while hobbits live in the ground, and there is a frickin dragon looming on the horizon. You can wait for the twist to happen to you, to feel the fire of the dragon’s breath. Or saddle up with Ishmael and take your universal truth to the dragon itself. Go on an adventure and be the best character of your own story.
It’s like the 90s song… “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Have a beautiful beginning.
Tonight, I find my fascination turning once again to the collection of words that we call a book. This strange curation of an author’s imagination pressed in black ink upon the delicate souls of trees bound, tied together and pressed between two covers. What is it about this ordinary item that captures us, that captures me so?
At this point in my life, I’ve handled many books. I’ve rifled through 10-cent book sale bins in surplus, wandered among stacks in the basements of old bookstores, and admired crisp new hardcovers stacked high on warehouse shelves. They are common objects and yet, they are anything but ordinary.
Words on the printed page are intimate. They are chosen, crafted, built upon the geography of a page. They allow you to read someone’s thoughts in your own voice. And their poignancy deepens when met with the unique experience of each reader. For this reason, no story will ever be experienced the same way. A scene conceived in the mind of an author will take on a whole new aspect in the mind of the reader. Some book characters will be your friends, but others will most definitely be your enemies. (And not every reader will agree on who is friend or foe!)
It all depends upon your experiences, your personality, your perspective. This is not to say that the author’s vision isn’t to be considered, but we all have different lines of sight in this world. It’s important for us to consider those beyond our own, and then embrace the opportunities that new ideas present.
“In the end, we’ll all become stories.”
– Margaret Atwood
This is why the written word continues to fascinate me. Books are an eternal expression of life, and their impact resonates into our lives long after the last full stop. So I ask, dear reader… what do you bring to the bound pages of a book… and what will you take away?
Reference books are the dinosaurs of print. The meteoric rise of the internet search engine has buried encyclopedias, thesauri, and dictionaries in the back of libraries and used bookstores across the world. Yet, these gems of information, which were once the prized possessions of family households, still have stories to tell. I heard one such story from my grandmother, as we peered over the massive spine of a 1956 publication of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary that used to belong to a woman named Alice.
Listen in as Gloria Kazmierzcak shares her memories of her mother collecting sections of the dictionary piece by piece.
This dictionary was bought by my mother… in pieces. A guy came to the door selling dictionaries. It was probably 1956. She paid for it every week when she got the section that was due that week. After she got all the sections, then the cover came and you could put it all together.
Alice Grabarkiewicz was a homemaker by occupation, and lived in Ohio with her husband, Victor. After she had three children, her oldest daughter, Gloria, babysat the two younger children while Alice walked to work at the Ohio Table Pad Company.
[Alice] enjoyed books. We were in school and I think she thought it might have been a good dictionary to help us in case we needed to look up anything. I think that’s why she bought it. She never really did say, and I was really surprised that she did buy it!
The dictionary was for the entire family to use for homework, research, or do crossword puzzles (which were Alice’s favorite)! The reference book was kept on the dining room table, at all times.
It was more than a dictionary, so to speak. It had… other facts about history and things like that. It was available to all of us. We didn’t have Google back then, we didn’t have cell phones back then, we didn’t have computers. So, this was it! In today’s age, I think I prefer looking [information] up online. Because it’s right at your fingertips.
Although reference books may be outdated, they support a different type of research that is drastically different from googling. Google requires a defined question. Reference books only require curiosity. With a bit of digging, old dictionaries can unearth knowledge that you don’t expect to find. This is something that Alice’s granddaughter, Barbara Shugar can attest to:
All of us kids… were drawn to [the dictionary] to just page through it, and look at words, and look at pictures, and learn new things!
The dictionary is mine now, but Alice’s memory is laced into each section that she collected, and echoes of dining room conversations still reverberate from the cover. The next time I need a word to complete a crossword, I’ll remember great-grandma Alice’s dictionary and spend some time lost in its pages.
Shakespeare was a rascal among playwrights. The master of wit, romance, and innuendo was a hero of public entertainment and is now the dread of high school poetry students everywhere. In days past, Shakespearean plays weren’t fit for respectable society. Seriously, his plays would be rated PG-13 today if the lingo were updated. Imagine the horror of Elizabethan paragons of virtue if they could see Shakespeare’s collections enshrined in bookstores, libraries and schools everywhere!
Found at a summer garage sale, An Art Edition of the Most Popular Dramas of Shakespeare is a hefty tome. The cover is pretty, even though the surface of the spine fell off, and there is a round mark where a $1 sticker was pressed onto the embossed surface. The crumbled spine now serves as a bookmark.
Before you can turn to the title page, you notice a yellowed sheet of paper just beyond the coversheet. The impression of the square paper on the page tells you it has been there for a while. It is a certificate, printed in brown ink with scrolling signatures, that certifies Mr. Herbert Parker of Kalamazoo, Michigan as a member of the Gaskell Literary Club of Chicago, Illinois. It’s all very official. Unfortunately, nothing seems to remain of this literary club. . . at least not on the internet. But you’re sure there is a city record somewhere that has more information about this club Herbert joined.
Herbert must have been quite the reader. Who else would pick up a book like this and register for a fancy literary club on December 18, 1889? You carefully turn the pages, and stop at the inscription, written three days later.
Herbert W. Parker,
Dec, 25, 1889.
A Merry Christmas,
From Your Wife.
A Christmas present! This illustrated book of Shakespearean dramas with its broken spine and gilded pages was a gift to Herbert from his wife. The club membership allowed him to get “any moral book to be obtained through the trade,” at an economical price. At this point, you wonder how literary the literary club was, given that Shakespeare probably can’t be considered moral.
As you flip through the pages of illustrations and columned text, you wonder who Herbert was, and who was his wife? We know nothing about her except she enjoyed fine books and had neat writing. With a bit of research (and some help from Ancestry, the 1910 Census, and MI marriage records) you discover that Herbert was born in Michigan and lived there his whole life. Wedding bells rang for Herbert in 1888, when he married Helen M. Parker (Cowlbeck), age 21 from Missouri. Together, they lived in Kalamazoo where he worked as the vice president at a bank.
On a snowy winter morning in Michigan, Herbert and Helen celebrated their 2nd Christmas together. Maybe they read this book aloud in front of the Christmas tree and giggled at Shakespeare’s witticisms. Maybe their children, Alice and James (who arrived on the scene just a couple years later) read the text for school and studied the lines for a school play. Maybe the Gaskell Literary Club kicked off a new story in the life of the Parkers in 1889.
Used books are more than collections of beat-up paperbacks and faded texts marching out from musty spines. Used books carry the weight of tearstained pages, notes scribbled in margins, the love of personal inscriptions, and the sunshine of yesterday on their faded covers. Who knows the journey a used book traversed before landing in your hand? This is the question that draws me into bookshops and libraries to search out books with their own unique histories, and I’ve found a few treasures along the way. Some of them contain mysteries that I’ve yet to figure out, but I love pouring over the clues within the pages. So, I give you the first installment of Book Impressions.
Most of us are familiar with the English poet, Robert Browning. During the Victorian era, he wrote plays and poems with dramatic flair and married Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was an accomplished poet in her own right. (Talk about a romance filled with poetry!) This particular book is titled, Robert Browning’s Poems and contains selections from his poetical works. It is small, almost smaller than the mass market paperbacks you see in airport gift stores. The cover, a dove grey with silver scrollwork around the edges, is faded beyond recognition, but still soft to the touch. The cover is stained, with camel-colored paint splattered across the front. Someone must have used the book to hold down a paint tarp during a home renovation project. You wonder if anybody got upset about the book damage. Maybe not. Any book collector would tell you this book isn’t worth anything, especially in its current condition. You slowly open the cover and the first two pages fall in your lap. The second one has writing on it. Three separate lines in different handwriting:
Hettie’s inscription is gracefully written, simple. Fletch sounds like a nickname of sorts. Perhaps they were close. Now you get into the technical bits. You skipped over the publisher: Donohue, Henneberry & Co. located in Chicago. When was this book published? The author’s note, by the great R.B. himself, is dated May 14, 1872. But the inscription mentioned ’96, and the publisher’s history indicates a print date in the 1890s. The book is dedicated to another famous author, Alfred Tennyson. Makes sense, that these classic poets were pals. According to Browning’s dedication, Tennyson’s friendship was “noble and sincere.”
What follows is 368 pages of Browning’s poetic genius. But turn to page 112. As you read, “And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge…” your eye catches a bit of blue at the end of the line. Resting where the page meets the cover, there is a tiny, pale blue flower, a little slip of stem peeking from underneath the preserved petals.
Is it a forget-me-not? It could be. We don’t know who picked the flower and nestled it safely within the pages of Browning’s poetry. Perhaps they wanted to remember line XIV from “By the Fireside.” It could have been a mindless reaction to preserve a pretty flower on a summer day. Or maybe the flower, like the book, was a gift of remembrance.
In this book, worn beyond repair by a poet lost to time, is a flower. So this book speaks about more than just poetry. It tells a story about the wear and tear of life, of painting projects, and wildflowers that grew over a hundred years ago, when Fletch got a book from Hettie.
As I walked my dog today, I met a couple whose beloved family dogs died within months of each other, the last one passed this week.
Loss is a blow to the heart. In the moment the shock is received, you feel the pain, but only for a moment. And then the numbness spreads.
As they tried to recall the exact date of their loss, they reached out to pet my dog Bree, as she greeted them with a snuffly nose and wagging tail.
You know you are wounded, but your mind can’t process the unexpected reality of being rent open. So you begin the first aid: stop the bleeding, analyze the situation, go through acts of self-care so the wound doesn’t fester.
I saw a tears behind their smiles as the couple lovingly patted my Bree girl; my cheerful traveling companion.
It is only after this initial phase of grief has passed that the ache sets in and you wonder if you will ever be whole again. Threads of self aren’t easily healed, without a bit of borrowed thread.
The couple’s shared sorrow allowed for a bittersweet moment of companionship, and reminded me that we are never alone.
Because we all have wounds. Some deeper than others. We try to hide the damage from each other, but we know they exist. Life gives us battle scars that ache in the solitude of denial. In the company of acceptance, the scars become symbols of strength.
As the sun set, Bree scampered into the backyard and we watched the stars come out together.
It is the hush after the sun goes down. You can still hear the hum of highway traffic in the distance, but under the darkening blanket of the sky, the trees whisper to each other. Lights turn off one by one in the neighborhood, as the rabbits creep out of their dens to forage.
A rotted bench stands underneath towering tree-trunks, beckoning you closer. It’s old and getting cold, but you lie down anyway to stare up at the blue-black expanse as the winking stars slowly emerge. For a moment, the world is turned upside down and you could tumble up to the tops of the trees and into the net of constellations above.
In that moment, you remember the immensity of the world. There is a foretelling of Spring Peepers on the breeze and the scent of crisp melting snow mingling with the musk of mossy earth and fallen leaves that comes before the smoke of midnight bonfires. You breathe in the song of renewal and golden days to come.
with bursts of creativity
the condensation of tears
rushing the clatter of small talk
the jar becomes empty
not broken or stained
it is a good thing
to sit by a window
to cast rainbows
across silent rooms
until the jar
is filled up again
by whispers of twilight
carried on the breath of kairos
spread blue velvet
over your skin
under the moon
peering yellow over the horizon
the trees reach up
to caress the golden warmth
that falls in the west
the earth stops spinning
till the crickets sing
and all but the knowing sleep
under a dream of tomorrow
of a company of stars
Today is Good Friday, which traditionally is Pierogi Making Day for my family. Since social distancing isn’t possible in my Grandma’s kitchen, we can’t be together. So instead, we text each other pictures of ourselves making miniature batches at home, gifs of dancing pierogis, or selfies of faces hidden behind colorful homemade masks.
For myself, I revisit the tradition in excerpts from a paper I wrote last year.
Family traditions take many forms. Some arise from our cultural or religious history. Others arise due to our human desire for remembrance, ritual, and fellowship. The best traditions are passed on through generations and expand from one’s family, to one’s friends, and into the wider community. My family’s pierogi recipe represents just that type of tradition. It expresses many things, including the most obvious: a mouth-watering dumpling of buttery dough and delectable spices. It also symbolizes my family’s history, culture, and our love of community. For with every pierogi that we’ve made, we’ve shared.
Considering the history of this simple dumpling, it’s no wonder that it has become a symbol of familial pride and community for Polish families. Pierogis are a national dish of Poland that have appeared in Polish cookbooks since the 17th century (“Pierogi – the Best Guide to the Most Popular Polish Food.”). Preparing these dumplings around holidays such as Christmas and Easter is a common tradition.
For my family, the tradition began in Busia and Dza-Dza’s kitchen on a Good Friday, years before I was born. They called around, inviting the family into their tiny kitchen to roll stiff mounds composed of butter, eggs, and flour, to crimp stuffing into round spheres of pale dough and to boil each dumpling in pots of steaming water, before carefully laying the pierogis in neat rows to dry. By the afternoon, everyone went home with heaping plates of fragrant pierogis. These fluted pockets of calorie-rich goodness would be fried in butter, to a crisp golden brown and serve as midnight snacks, the highlight of Easter brunches, and the specialty of holiday dinners. The traditional sauerkraut and potato pierogis are my favorites, while others prefer the creamy, cottage-cheese filled ones.
As we grandkids undertook our pierogi training, we learned about the different methods of preparing them. One could crimp them with a hinged “crimper” squeezing the ends of the dumpling into a nice, fluted pattern. Or, one could press the edges shut with a fork, leaving deep creases in the dough. My older cousin still swears by the fork method as the only authentic way to make pierogis. One year my cousins and I made an apple pie version… that was stretching the dumpling recipe a bit too far!
Pierogi Making Day repeats year after year, even as the family grows and my Busia’s tiny kitchen is packed with her kids, grandkids, their spouses, friends, and extended family, all working the pierogi assembly line. Dza-Dza supervises us from heaven, and I know he would be pleased. Last Good Friday, the family churned out over 1,000 pierogis to enjoy and share with friends who request a small order of the treat every spring season.
In the handwritten recipe my mom passed along to me, she wrote “Traditions such as this are a special and important part of family life and heritage.” This is the most compelling aspect about the pierogi. It is a simple dumpling, but as food often does, it brings people together. More importantly, traditional homemade foods like this are imbued with a rich history, cultural heritage, and love. As my family labors around that little kitchen table in Ohio every Easter season, we enrich ourselves, our family, and hopefully, bring a yummy sense of pure enjoyment to the community.
Be well and keep your traditions alive, my friends!