Catherine Beckman: Bookshelf brings back memories

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My parents had one bookcase in our house in Anaheim, California. The book shelves climbed from floor to ceiling. We climbed it, too, from time to time. It was the first thing you'd see as you walked into their bedroom.

The books and my siblings have long dispersed and our parents died more than two decades ago. But the shelves still stand, as far as I know, in the home in which we grew.

Recently, a group of my siblings were commenting on what one brother had referred to as "the empty bookshelf inside their bedroom" as he lamented that he wished our parents had filled their minds and shelves with some Focus on the Family-related literature. Apparently a source of inspiration for this particular brother, not one shared by most of us.

Many of us remember the bookshelf in its dusty, disjointed richness with its odd collection of titles. It would be hard to believe that anyone would recall the bookshelf as physically empty. Perhaps my brother's use of the word "empty" is a footnote to his lifelong yearning to have had parents who would fill his inner world. But our parents can't fill our inner worlds. Not then. Not now.

Eight boys and three girls grew up in that house, and a recent e-mail discussion among us sparked a collective remembering. As we replied to each other, our parents' bookshelf and its resident titles reconstructed itself.

"It wasn't empty," the first brother replied, "it was chock full of 'Reader's Digest Condensed Books' and 'Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia,' and 'National Geographic Magazines.'" A sister added that there were "the little historical booklets." Perhaps she is the only one of us who could actually recite the Gettysburg Address as a result of what she found in the mystery of those shelves.

She also recalled the bookshelf could have been the source of her fairy tale collection, an assumption drawn from the fact that it is published by Reader's Digest. I think this likely as I write, having pulled a duplicate copy of "Grimm's Fairy Tales" from my own bookshelf, a memory of a book I read repeatedly.

There was also an oversized book about American Indians. As word about this e-discussion came to me, I wondered if the brother who is now its owner would comment on the naked women in its pages. He did. Sketches in the Indian book and photos in National Geographic were early sources of sex education in our home.

As bookshelves collect more than just books, one brother recalled a small bottle of holy water from Lourdes, France. I always thought the water smelled a little musty, but that might have been because it went from grotto to plastic on its way to bringing blessings to believers. It was a testament to our mother's faith and, perhaps, DuPont plastics. I wonder how much the container cost. And who profited.

Then there was the copy of "The Life of Christ," inscribed by a calligrapher's pen to my father from whoever was Pope at the time. Its pages were filled with short, New Testament bible stories. The kind of condensed version of Christianity that only Catholics did well. I loved the color illustrations. They sparked a desire to draw and paint. I kept the book for years and passed it to a niece on the occasion of her First Communion and Confirmation.

For years I remembered a two-volume edition of "The Outline of History" by H.G. Wells. They had blue bindings on red covers. Eventually I spotted a duplicate set in a rare books store and bought them. I treasure them as an old friend from childhood.

More important than the titles on those shelves was the way in which books changed our lives. Whether an automotive manual, an encyclopedia, or a collection of fairy tales, doors were opened for us each time we reached for a book.

While I didn't need the Brother's Grimm to tell me just how grim life could be, I found respite in reading. My inner world was my own. I was the sole keeper of the keys. I could go anywhere. And I did.

Imagination, dreams and creativity were ignited on the dusty shelves of my parents' bookcase.

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