When I was a small boy, I spent Christmas Day with my mother’s side of the family at my grandmother’s house. She lived on the corner where two gravel roads intersected across from the Berryville Store. At one point, she and my grandfather had managed that store, but by the time I came along in October of 1955, they’d moved on to other ventures. My grandfather would die in March of 1957, and the only way I would ever know him would be through the stories my relatives told and the things he left behind, items I would find in the drawer of a library table at my grandmother’s house: pipes and pipe cleaners, cigarette lighters, a deck of Bicycle playing cards. Such was the evidence that he’d once been what we might call “a man of the world.” I’ve heard stories of his dissolute ways, but those are for another time. The closest I ever felt to this man I never knew was when I held his books.
The front bedroom of my grandmother’s house had built-in bookshelves. Keep in mind, this was a modest frame house in what some would have called the boondocks, a rural patch of southeastern Illinois where dirt farms dotted the landscape. My grandmother’s house had no indoor plumbing. She washed her dishes with water heated on the gas stove. An outhouse sat at the rear of her lot. She kept a chamber pot in her bedroom. My point is this wasn’t the sort of house where you’d expect to find a small library, but that’s exactly what my grandfather left behind.
In the winter, my grandmother closed off the front part of her house to save on heating costs. She had what she needed at the back of the house, a good-sized kitchen and a second bedroom. She told me I wasn’t allowed to go into the front part of the house, but each day, when she and I were supposed to be napping, I’d wait until I knew she was asleep, and then I’d open the forbidden door and go to that front bedroom. I’d take a book from the shelf and sit on the cold Linoleum floor. I didn’t yet know how to read, but that didn’t stop me from taking pleasure in the way the book’s binding smelled, or the feel of the slightly raised typeface, or the sound of the pages as I turned them. Years later, my mother would tell me stories about when she was a girl. Each evening after supper, she and her siblings would gather around my grandfather, and he would read Zane Grey westerns to them. I love this image of my grandfather, a man who was broken in many ways but somehow managed to hold faith in the written word and the power of a good story well-told. How I wish I’d had the chance to hear him read from Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage: “Every day I awake believing—still believing. The day grows, and with it doubts, fears, and that black bat hate that bites hotter and hotter into my heart. Then comes night—”
And indeed the night did come, a Sunday night in March when I was only five months old. My grandparents had come home from church, the white clapboard church just down the road, and somewhere in that house where I would spend many Christmas days, my grandfather’s heart stopped beating, and my grandmother was left to her widowhood.
I often wonder what my grandfather might think if somewhere in the realm of spirits he knows I became a writer. I wish I could tell him he was the start of it all. He left his books for me to find. I held them in my small hands. The words waited for me to decipher them. No matter how broken he may have been—no matter how much his life may have disappointed him—he managed this one thing: He loved books, and in loving them, he left a trail so I could love them, too.