Sunday, October 17, 2010

After all, it's only paper

This is Powell's, my own neighborhood's wonderful used and rare bookstore
One of my favorite blogs is Forgotten Bookmarks. The header on the site explains: I work at a used and rare bookstore, and I buy books from people everyday [sic]. These are the personal, funny, heartbreaking and weird things I find in those books. The blog is not signed, there is no author profile, and the store is also not identified. I would love to know more about the person who finds and celebrates for posterity these subtle little treasures!   
Where my books with the bookmarks were before renovations.

A few of my more or less interesting old bookmarks, bought as souvenirs or received as gifts from the travels of others.

As mentioned elsewhere, I recently undertook Part the Second of major household renovations that required all furniture to be moved (more on this subject later!). Thus it was necessary to pack away all the books on the shelves, which in turn afforded the chance for a little high-speed reminiscence. As I pulled the books I quickly spun through the pages in an effort to bring back memories as well to loosen a few years of dust prior to vacuuming and packing.  And of course, out popped a few forgotten (what else!) bookmarks. Although there wasn’t time to document their association with the books they were in (some doubtless for 20 or more years) like the Forgotten Bookmarker does, I did set them aside.  On the whole, they were a mix of aesthetically cute and ugly, but one was crashingly painful.
It was a letter from my mother, dated September 3, 1977, typed on onionskin but well-preserved, folded inside a volume that I failed to note when I pulled it out. In 1977 she was living in San Juan near the University of Puerto Rico where she taught. She was 65 years old, an age when everyone tires more easily, and most are thinking of retiring. She acknowledges a postcard I sent her from Vancouver, bemoans the poor quality of photos coming out of her camera, and the stinky, pooping feral cats that took up residence around her terrace (because she kindheartedly fed them). Then she went on to say:

“This week went well although the load is heavy. I teach five courses. The extra course is to help me pay taxes, I think I’ll not teach beyond this year. [She in fact didn’t stop teaching until the mid-1980’s.]  The tax burden is more than I can keep up with. This month after I buy the two wedding presents, pay the IRS $200 estimated tax, pay the bank $174 on my loan, Raquel $200 rent, I’ll have just over $100 to buy groceries, gas, and entertainment, to say nothing of utilities. If I didn’t happen to have a few dollars left over from my trip to S. Am. [South America, for which she took out the bank loan] which I’ll use to live on I’d starve. I think I must sit down with my accounts and find out how much I pay in taxes altogether at this present salary and alimony and how much I’d pay if I accepted Social Security and food stamps plus using my alimony to flesh out the difference. I think I’m losing right now. So why work? Few people do in Puerto Rico these days,* yet all eat well on food stamps…I’m off to by some groceries without food stamps. Most of it cat food. I think we’re in for a rainstorm.”
At that time I myself was between jobs, but had the relative security of being married to a poorly-paid post-doc with a bright future. Although for many, many years, both while married (I went back to work about a month after Mother’s letter arrived) and for some years after I divorced, I was very underpaid and had to consider every dollar I spent, I never experienced the bone-deep financial anxieties Mother did. Clearly much of her fear was grounded in the realities of the moment, but another big part was born of her teenage years spanning the Great Depression and subsequent collapse of the security of her father’s once satisfyingly remunerative livelihood.
In fact, throughout her roller-coaster financial life, Mother lived at least decently and safely, and had everything she needed, if not most of what she wanted, except the security of knowing her money would not run out. When I at last achieved the same position, of having everything I needed and most of what I wanted, one of the things I wanted was to help her. In her last years, I sent her a little cash, paid some of her bills, and made sure she had fun, if not exotic, vacations. But she never would take much from me.   

*I don’t think she was sensitive to the fact that Puerto Rico has never had enough jobs to go around, especially for the lesser-skilled. Blindness to such understanding is certainly one of the less charming features of the classed society to which she belonged.

1 comment:

  1. How interesting to find your own forgotten bookmarks, including the letter from your mother, though painful. I'm glad you were able to help her in her later years.