I have this book. It belonged to my great-grandmother, a woman named Minnie who died when I was twelve. I've never read it the entire way through, but sometimes I just open it to a random page, stare at the words, and imagine her reading them.
The book is a collection of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The inscription on the front cover says, "From Mother, December 25th, 1923." A Christmas present. Sometimes I wonder what this book is worth, but I can't imagine selling it. I'd sooner sell my car, my kidney, Phoebe (don't tell Phoebe). I cannot tell you what it feels like to hold a book that is 83-years-old, a book my great-grandmother held, pored over, when she was young. My age. Did I get my obsession with words from her? If so, I wish I could thank her now. Did she ever worry about whether the words she chose were the right ones? I wish I could ask her. In my head, she is a hesitant poet, writing stories between caring for her four children, but I have no way of corroborating this. It's all made up. Fantasies. Stories. What I do. The only thing I'm good at.
I also have a book of quotations that belonged to my great-grandfather. I obtained both of these books after his death in November, 2005, after joining my family in exploration of his recently vacated home. I wanted to keep something, anything, but I didn't know if I'd be allowed these books, if it was appropriate. If someone else was first in line. Until my aunt said, "take them, Jennie, I think they'd want you to have them."
Sometimes I think of my great-grandparents, one the oldest of his brothers and sisters, the other the youngest of hers. I think of what I know and what I wish I'd known. The gaps that I fill in myself. I like to think I get my thirst of knowledge from them, the man who took college courses throughout his life, for no particular reason, and the woman who kept a book of poetry, falling apart at the seams, for so many years. Maybe that was their gift to me. That urge in my brain that wakes me up, makes me Google questions at 2 AM, that desire to write, to discover. And it makes me sad that these books are all I have left, aside from a handful of memories.
My great-grandfather, who always wanted to know what I was working on in school, who I remember looking so proud, so amazed, when he talked about my aunt getting her Masters. My great-grandmother, who I never knew as an adult, but who always let me win, and who taught me how to lose graciously. Who sat next to me at the piano, played me song after song. So patient.
These words are for them. They'll never be enough, but words are all I have to give.