STILL LIFE WITH BOOKS: A MEMOIR
Kathye Fetsko Petrie
"There are books which take rank in our life with parents, and lovers and passionate experiences." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Like the footfalls in T. S. Eliotīs "Four Quartets," books echo in my memory, inextricable parts of my biography: Books read and not read, books given and received-these are the themes of my life. Bonding with my mom may have begun at birth, but the deal was not sealed until six years later when she gave me one of her childhood treasures, a sky-blue Nancy Drew mystery from the 1930s.
It was "The Quest of the Missing Map," and I was lost in those pages for days. When I discovered this book was part of a series, I embarked on a journey for years. To my mind, at that time, no other birthday or holiday gift could in any way compare to a fresh, new Nancy Drew, the promise of those printed pages remained long after the wrap and ribbon were gone, and I was never disappointed.
There were other books in my childhood, "Little Women," and "Aliceīs Adventures in Wonderland." There was my parents gold-leafed leather-bound family Bible, with its sumptuous illustrations and tissue-thin pages. At my grandparentsī house in Chester, Pennsylvania, where my family went every Sunday, was a complete set of Charles Dickens. These volumes slept behind the glass-doors of a cabinet, and I would stare at them covetously. Eventually, my grandparents took pity on me and allowed me to handle the books, and examine their engravings. Soon they let me borrow titles, one by one, to take home each week to read.
Books spurred my independence. When I was ten, and living in Broomall, Pennsylvania, I would wander alone through neighborhoods not my own and across a busy street to the small, white house which had been converted into the Marple Public Library. I still remember the warm, dusty smell of those book-lined former bedrooms, moted sunshine streaming through the stacks. I remember being stirred by the sheer quantity of books, and the infinite possibilities.
In my parentsī house, I discovered a hidden cache of paperbacks in boxes behind the sliding doors of a wooden cabinet. These turned out to be gothic novels, a steady succession of them, passed on to us after read by relatives. For years, I lived in a land of dark mansions inhabited by governesses, as depicted by Victoria Holt and others of her ilk. I might be there still had not a neighbor rescued me with a copy of Gone with the Wind. I donīt remember much of what happened to me that summer of my 15th year, but I know to this day what happened to Scarlet, Rhett, Ashley and Melanie.
In high school, I fell in love with a fellow student who was an art major. In his bedroom or studio were painted canvases and a storyboard based on Eliotīs "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." "Let us go then, you and I," the poem reads. He spent hours drawing and photographing me.
We broke up during college, and I began dating someone who was all wrong for me. I knew this almost instantly, yet lingered because he romanced me with literature. Articulate and extremely erudite, he dazzled me in different languages, read aloud long passages of Proust and Anna Karenina, and called me Katya. One day, he quoted Eliotīs "The Wasteland," a tactical error that resulted in this epiphany: I still loved my former boyfriend. I went looking for him, and when I found him, I happily discovered he felt the same about me. "Reader, I married him," as Jane Eyre says, a happy-ending.
Before the wedding, came this supposed tragedy, my need for back surgery for worsening scoliosis-a lateral curvature of the spine. I was scheduled to be an invalid for ten months, swathed in Plaster of Paris. These months in actuality were one of the best periods in my life as a bibliophile. This was because, before my operation, I had time to transform my recovery room into a well-stocked personal library. The library contained everything Iīd always wanted to read but had never had the time, due to required school reading, and every good title I might have been reading during the years wasted on Gothic mysteries. Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky, I could read night and day, non-stop if I wanted. This was heaven for me.
Today I live with my husband, the artist, in a college town outside of Philadelphia, on a quiet, tree-lined street in a house brimming with bookshelves he built for us. There, my volumes on literature and writing mingle blissfully with his tomes on gardening, art, and photography. The beloved set of Dickens, inherited from my grandparents, now resides on a shelf in our living room. In other rooms, rest the favorite childhood titles of our three now-grown sons. Moreover, the books I need for research and the endlessly growing bed-table pile of books "to be read."
Life, as it will, has brought some grief. In such times, I can gauge my mental health by the degree to which books continue to speak to me. For instance, the year one of my brothers died at the too-young age of 25, the volumes on my shelves appeared to turn gray, and lost their appeal. I always know Iīve found life again when the books on my shelves regain their color and beckon to me.
Books remain my emotional barometer, when I am excited books are a promise of endless pleasure held out to me. Yet, when my world is not so positive it saddens me to think that were I to read one book a day for the rest of my life, and live to be a hundred and twenty, I still would not have read everything I want to read. I still could not write all the books I want to write, not learn all I want to know, not tell all the stories within me.
When I feel such despair, itīs usually a sign I am under great stress, and need to take a break. At those times, I go for a walk, to the bookstore or public library, or I pull a beloved volume from a shelf at home, lie down on the couch, and read. Then, like some amazing grace, the words restore me.