Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bumby and Books

Genuinely torn about whether or not I should pay another $2.99 to rent 28 Days Later again so that I can take screenshots of the four black and white horses that Jim and Frank see/the herd of white horses swarming on the green field in Jim's dream/the white HELL against the green hill in the second-to-last and the white-and-red HELLO in the last scene. I am NOT going to do that. Okay.

What I am going to do is write about my grandpa Bumby, who passed away almost 3 months ago, and what I can learn from his death. I've been thinking about this since he died and I'm still not sure. I don't care that he's dead. This fact is... frustrating. Angry-making. Like walking repeatedly into a wall but... not feeling anything. The reason I'm putting this on a "public" (in name only, nobody reads this) blog is that when I write about it in my journal I just go around and around in circles and there's nobody I can talk to about it and I just want to, if not come to understand my apathy better, at least articulate it with as much clarity as I can and hopefully, in doing so, put it to rest.

My grandfather's is the first "real" death I've experienced. A girl from the grade below me in high school died in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. The man who designed the jacket of my mom's second CD had a heart attack. But no one I've loved or even known well has ever died—all three of my other grandparents are still alive—so it feels like this should, then, register. But it hasn't.

It's probably because Bumby and I weren't close. We saw each other regularly, but I was shy around him, and he didn't talk much to anyone. His presence felt incidental; it didn't make my life any better or worse. In one of our lasts visits to the nursing home, Wynn said "They should have a glass elevator in the middle of this building so they can take the people nobody wants anymore up to the roof in their wheelchairs and push them off." I said "Wynn, that's not okay," but I think I felt obligated to admonish him because that that's how I felt, too. I didn't "want" Bumby, I never had, and it didn't seem like anybody did. But then: doesn't that make me a horrible person? Shouldn't I value human life intrinsically, no matter how "useful" it is? Who can judge someone's "usefulness," anyway? And it's not like Bumby didn't mean anything to anyone. He was a high school French and English teacher at Dedham Country Day School, and, when he retired, tutored adults who were studying for their GEDs in almost every subject at the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences, or SCALE, in Cambridge for twenty years. But even when I say that it feels hollow, a string of empty "credentials" trotted out in a fruitless attempt to justify a life. Why? It's true that he made an impact on people. It's just that I never really saw it happen—and more than that, it's that he didn't make an impact on me. In my journal, around the time of his death, at the end of an entry about how I wasn't feeling anything, I wrote "I imagine this will be an early, contextualizing paragraph of an essay about the first death in my life that did matter."

From 2007-2010, I think.
The reason this frustrates me so much right now is that he could have. He's one of the only people I've ever seen read as much as me. My grandfather LOVED books. When I picture him, it's lying on his back reading. The librarians had memorized his account number, he came so often, checked out so many—hundreds a year. He sent out a Christmas letter with about twenty recommended titles on it, but also kept—as I found out one of the last times I saw him—spiral-bound notebooks in which he wrote down every book he ever read, with a rating system of checks, X's, filled-in circles.

For Bumby—at least it seemed this way to me—reading was something solitary, inward-directed, even insular; not something to be shared. This wasn't entirely true. He kept lists, in his notebooks, of books to give us each for Christmas—as he was reading, he was thinking of us. He gave me, over the years: a photocopy of "Who's On First?"; Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle; The Collected Dorothy ParkerThe Children's Book by A.S. Byatt; Memoirs of my Windmill; by Antoine Daudet; War and Peace; The Hunger Games. And I didn't read them; I'm not sure why. Because I wasn't interested, maybe; because I resisted recommended and required reading by default—but also because I knew he wouldn't ask me if I had, wouldn't try to talk to me about this thing we literally both loved most in the world, more than anybody else I know, even now. I'd skim Bumby's books until I'd ruined the experience of actually reading them, then sell them on for like 79 cents each. On visits to their apartment, when I was reading, he'd usually reach out his hand, indicating that he wanted to see my book; I'd hand it to him, he'd take it, turn it over, grunt, maybe ask whether I liked it, I'd say yes or no, then he'd hand it back.

I have my version of Bumby's notebooks in tumblr where I post the books I've read that uses the same theme as Book Pickings which I think is just so galvanizingly and soul-refreshingly BEAUTIFUL
The thing is, I might understand where he was coming from. I find talking to people, especially those I don't think will understand, about the books I love painfully intimate. (See the Rookie article from June 2012 re: this.) I basically can't do it. It makes me feel exposed and vulnerable, and if they don't react in exactly the right way I immediately regret sharing and feel angry, defensive, judgmental, they're so stupid, they just don't get it. This is an awful and isolating feeling. The thing that basically gives your life both pleasure and deep meaning, the thing that's been your calling literally since the age of three and that you both feel that you've always been really and at the same time are just beginning to be good at, isn't something that connects you with people. It's something that ends up alienating you from them, like you're somehow better/smarter than—aka separate from—everyone else, which is no fun to feel. Bumby was sort of a stranger to me (maybe because of this) but, again, he didn't have to be. He could have been someone with whom I used books to connect. He not only would have "gotten" how I felt about them—he would have gotten, I think, though I can't know for sure, how difficult it is to find someone who gets it. 

Did he feel isolated? Did he worry that his love of books was isolating him? Were his Christmas gifts an effort to connect? I don't know. But I want books to connect me with people. And they do. I've read almost all fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories aloud to my brothers. We're about to start "The Hound of the Baskervilles," but right now our bedtime story is The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. (They're 12 and 14. My dad listens too.) I recommended Welcome to the Monkey House to Loren recently. He liked it. My dad and I have shared David Foster Wallace, Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, James Herriot. Loren, Wynn, and I: The Adventures of Tintin. All of us: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. His Dark Materials (which they didn't really like, but oh well). My college boyfriend and I took like three of the same literature classes (Russian Literary Criticism, Comp Lit Three, Milton). We shared Notes from the Underground, by Dostoevsky. Maldoror by Lautréamont. We argued over whether or not you could "tell" that Mrs. Dalloway was written by a woman. He introduced me to Emerson. My mom gave him the entire Prydain Chronicles; he didn't read them. Oh well.

I don't want to reduce Bumby's life to a "lesson," especially not "don't be like him." Maybe the lesson is "don't be like me": he gave me books. I didn't read them. Maybe it's "be more like him"; I don't know. I didn't start writing this with a "thesis" in mind—I wrote it because I've been writing about this subject for months and I've never felt like I found one. But maybe it's actually simple. Many of the above are things that feel like part of my soul. I'm fiercely protective of them. But I'm realizing that I've shared them anyway, and I've always been glad I did.

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