October 15, 2006

For The Love Of Books, And My Father

“You want to give me a dollar for this?” It was an insult; and I didn’t hide my scorn for this buyer. I stretched the corner of my mouth, rolled my eyes, and held the book in front of me as if I were holding a valuable artifact.

The guy, a middle aged man wearing cut off jeans, a scruffy beard, and a khaki, bush hat, waved me off and walked away. I felt justified. Not because I didn’t make the sale; but, because I validated the importance of my late father’s book collection.

If I wished to open a book store, this would be a great start. Dad’s compilation included works of World War II and American Civil War history, and an assortment of volumes about sailing vessels, old time railroads and their steam engines, and novels. Yes, there were hundreds of fine coffee table books, and official, U.S. Government historical records of famous battles. Yet, the value of each hardcover and soft back was set not by a bargain hunter’s “fifty cents” mindset; it was my sentimental attachment to the man who taught me to appreciate literature and history. I’m an avid reader today because of my parents; yet, my father set the high water mark with his astounding talent for comprehending and synthesizing every subject he studied.

My siblings were the ones who arranged this rummage sale, held on my father’s driveway in the sweltering June heat. It was a month after he passed away, and we were still cleaning out his home. Watching strangers casually toss aside my mother’s fine, blue plates, her sacred quilting paraphernalia, and various knick knacks she collected over the fifty years they resided in their home, I became territorial. That may be junk to them, I thought. But to me, these things were part of my life, items which were the backdrop to my youth.

It was when folks were chipping down the asking prices for my dad’s books that I became protective. He read every single one of them and remembered most of the subject matter. Often, he bought a book just to clarify something he read in another. So much of his identity was built around his understanding of the past that one of my sister’s friends, a full professor at a nearby college, once observed “Your father knows more about American History than most history professors I know.”

That statement was priceless, as my father was a humble mechanic who repaired oil burners, air conditioners, and refrigerators for a living. His service in the army during World War II left him with severe wounds which caused him pain for the rest of his life. He never had a chance at formal education, but that did not stop him from teaching himself.

While in the nursing home shortly before his death, my brother bought him a hefty, coffee table book on the Civil War. No doubt my dad was familiar with everything inside this volume; but he got it for him because dad stopped reading. He wouldn’t even look at a newspaper. We knew that if lost interest in his love of the written word, he was done. So, in an effort to revive his spirit, we tried to get him to crack a book.

I visited him in the day room with him seated next to me in a wheel chair. His breathing was distressed and he was hooked up to an oxygen tank. With the pages of the new book open before me, I showed him the pictures. He was disinterested, unwilling to glance at the sepia toned images and Daguerreotype photographs printed inside. At one point, I was so engrossed in the subject matter, that I almost forgot my father was seated next to me. In fact, he dozed off.

One photo grabbed my attention. “Hey look Dad, it’s the U.S. Sanitary Commission, they look so important, don’t they?” I chuckled as I could not believe that the grim faced men in the photo could be anything more than glorified government employees.

My dad stirred, examined the page, and with heavy breaths, said “They became one of the most important agencies after the Civil War, giving medical supplies to hospitals, taking care of war casualties, and staffing hospitals with doctors and nurses.” Then, he proceeded to name the men in the shot. That memory saddens me because, while he struggled with his own mortality, depressed and unhealthy; he still made it a point to educate his son.

More and more customers were turned away that day as I dutifully demanded fair compensation for this legacy of learning; mostly because I did not want to see them go. I fought for reasonable prices, parrying with the “I’ll give you a quarter for this” crowd; because, I imagined bits of my dad’s soul being carried away with each sale. At this time, my home is filled with this inheritance of printed text. My basement has a table stacked with an assortment of very old and fascinating hardbacks dated as early as 1840. Some are first editions in fine condition, others did not fare so well over time; but they were read, cherished, and saved for future generations.

One of my father’s neighbors came by the yard sale and browsed the covers displayed on the tables. She picked up one or two to examine them more closely. Then, she turned to my brother and said “Your dad was a very interesting man. I always knew he was a lot more than just a mechanic.” He was indeed, and I have a library full of facts to prove it.

-Michael J. Kannengieser


Anna said...

Michael, another great tribute to your father. Now that I read the story I can say the same - he was very interesting man. History is tricky subject I find, yet very interesting, and looks like your father knew it very well. Excellent story I really enjoy reading. I am sure your dad is very proud of you, as you are proud of him now and always be. BTW I think it is okay to be protective of your parents belonging, they are part of the family history you know. On the other hand, if the books have to go, then have you consider donating his books to library or school. Anna :)

Paul said...

That would have been hard to have a driveway sale of these items which were still linked, in your mind, to your dad, and I'm not surprised you became protective. I'm not sure at what point one would become more detached and able to let them go - if at all. At least it afforded you the opportunity to reflect on how important your father remained to you. An interesting account. Thanks.

The Uneasy Supplicant said...

I hope you guys wound up keeping the books Mike instead of having to bend to the multitude f cheapskates out there that roam the garage sales placing a ridiculously low value on things. I would have reacted in exactly the same way you did. Keep the books and pass them onto your son or daughter. I've regretted getting rid of my father's library and have spent a lifetime trying to acquire some of the titles back.
BTW excellent written. Your story elicited a response from me as I read it.

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

Hi Anna,
Thank you for your comments about my dad. The interesting aspect about my father's studious-ness (is that a word?) is that he kept it all to himself. he never flaunted his knowledge. He was quiet and reserved and carried himself with a genteel dignity. I suppose I will be writing tributes to my parents for a long while. Thanks for reading.

Hi Paul,
I suppose I may let some of them go, but it a family decision. My sister found a book buyer who is taking the contemporary titles and giving us fair compensation. But, the more valuable, interesting, and truly historic works I have stored away safely. They belong to the family, but I won't let them go until I am ready. Thanks Paul.

We did not bend, or at least I didn't anyway. I don't think I had a chance to tell you about some of the zanier things which happened over the two days we had the sale. There were some bright spots, but mostly aggravation. I am keeping most of the books, though they really belong to the family. Some of them mean more to me then my siblings, and I feel that in time they will forget they exist. I do not want to sell them, and I have begun to read some of them too. Thanks JD. -Mike.

Michelle said...

Well Mike I must say I am impressed with your talent for writing...very nice piece.

Peter said...

Hi! I don't think I would have had the heart to stick around but I have a feeling you did so, to make sure your father's lifetime collection went to a good home. Well, we both hope so!

Take Care,

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

Hi Michelle,
Thanks so much for reading and for stopping by. I appreciate your compliments. -Mike.

Hi Peter,
I was sick to my stomach for most of the two days we had the sale. But, in the end, I kept the most cherished and rare of the books. They are stored properly, and slowly, I am reading them. Thanks for reading for helping me to remember my father. -Mike.

jenniferw said...

Great post and I feel your pain. We own several hundred books. After my husband and I are gone I would gladly authorize my children to give the books away for nothing, if only the recipient(s) promised to READ THEM! Sadly though, most people picking through your parents' things were probably just looking for "something for nothing" or, worse yet, something to buy cheap and sell for profit. Good for you, being protective. That must have been difficult and I'm sorry for your loss.

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

Hi Jennifer,

That's a perfect requirement for giving away your books; the recipient must actually crack them open and read! Unfortunately, reading is a dying art, and that is why books are left to rot. My parents, however, had many first editions, and other tomes are rare and need to be authenticated and appraised by dealers. They are not worth huge sums of money; but, they are worth keeping for another few decades. Who knows, maybe my children will donate these volumes to a worthy cause? I just did not want to see them go at a garage sale for a quarter each. Thanks for visiting, Jennifer! Sorry for the delay in answering. -Mike.