Last night I received a wonderful gift.
Deanne and Irv Bayer lived across the street from my parents when I was born; we moved away a couple years later and then, four years after that, returned to the same street. They were still there, and my mom still called Deanne her Jewish mother. I got birthday cards from her alongside those from my actual grandmothers and to think of walking down the block in the summertime she is there in my mind’s eye, kneeling in her front garden, a constant and engaging presence. Irv was an engineer but Deanne was an artist, a painter and a poet, and when – in the fifth grade – a poem of mine was selected alongside one of hers for an anthology published by Cleveland State University she was giddy and proud, and we went together to the poetry reading and release party.
She died a couple years ago, and last week, I checked my email in DC to find a surprise: an email from Irv, asking if I’d be interested in some of Deanne’s old books. It was such an unexpected offer that I teared up, staring at my phone in the middle of Americorps orientation.
Last night the books arrived, six of them, leather-bound, “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” held together with electrical tape and a rubber band and the first few pages of “Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Period” taped in place. The book was from Deanne’s years at Hunter College, in the forties; it has earned its tatters.
Generally I don’t abide clutter well, preferring text in digital format. Hundreds of thousands of pages take up only the space of my slim external hard drive and I can sort and search with an ease that librarians of generations past could only dream about– but last night I enacted all the ritual cliches of old-book acquisition, running my fingers along spines and embossed titles, savoring thin-sliced paper, breathing in their musty intellectual perfume. These books have traveled across time and space, moving from New York City to Cleveland to California over sixty years, and although it is foolish to think that I might unlock the richness of their wisdom or accumulated experience with a touch or smell I still could not help myself.
Deanne – Mrs. Bayer – was a fervent supporter of my writing, even as I wandered off to Caltech and tried to put poetry behind me; her encouragement was unwavering. Belief in another’s creativity is a precious gift, rarely bestowed in this world, and last night as I held the worn solidity of her books in my hands I thought: this is her faith in me, and I was glad that it was not ephemeral.