Paperback Inheritance

My mom saved a stack of papers I’d written in high school and college, and I got them back yesterday. Jon and I had a good laugh over some (teen angst much?), but a couple have potential. I’ll be editing and sharing them here as I’m able. These days, writing time = naptime.

This piece was an object study for Advanced Creative Writing in 2007.

My father is not what you’d call a man of few words, but he does choose them carefully. Except when he’s watching Fox News—then he’s prolific. When he reads, he prefers political pieces, historical biographies, theories on the biblical exodus. I’d seen books by C.S. Lewis around the house and since he was the patron saint of Wheaton College, his works were practically required reading for an effective faith. After my first year, I came home inspired to catch up. I leaned my head against the doorjamb of Dad’s office. “Dad, if I wanted to read C.S. Lewis, where should I start?”

“What do you mean, ‘start’?” He crinkled his nose at me under his reading glasses. “Haven’t you read him before now?”

“No, but I figured it’s about time, yeah?” I smiled sheepishly.

“Well, start with the basics, sweetie. Mere Christianity is a good place; I think I have it laying around somewhere.” He stretched out his arms to the piles on his desk. Surely, it had been years since he’d read Mere Christianity, but Dad searched as though it was buried under the bank statements and budget worksheets. “I wonder where I put that,” he whispered as he rose from his desk chair. I anticipated his next move.

“In the basement bookshelves, maybe?” Dad and I often seem to ride the same train of thought, and sometimes I get to the next stop before he does.

“Oh, yeah—why am I looking here?” He gave a goofy grin. The older I get, the more transparent Dad is, and I love this about being an adult.

I bounced downstairs to the metal army-issue shelves in the basement, the ones whose retractable glass doors I always pinched my fingers in. I tilted my head to scan our collections of children’s books and bible studies. I landed on a little black volume: The Screwtape Letters. I remembered seeing it as a kid in the backseat of Dad’s Buick. Back then, he told me it was about demons and I was fearful, but now I was intrigued.

The book itself was nothing special: black jacket with white type. The cover image showed a small flame curling up from the tip of a feather pen of the same fiery orange. Fanning the pages released the smell of every basement bookshelf it ever inhabited. Damp, dust, Grandma’s moth balls, the sweet souring of time clung to the pages. Memories of basements all feel the same way: like a forgotten book resurrected into meaning and memory.

Even though this copy was 41 years old, the pages appeared untouched. When Dad read this book, he obviously didn’t sit with pen in hand, adding margin comments. My reading would have resulted in a dog-eared, inked-up mess. We’re different in the unnoticeable things, but similar in other ways.

I brought the book up to Dad. “You know, I think that came from the house in Downer’s Grove,” he told me. “I must have taken it years ago.” I could still recall my grandparents’ basement, freezing cold like 5AM and smelling like a hundred years. It was cluttered with relics of postwar suburbia: team pennants, mortarboard tassels, and a dusty vibrating belt machine. Dad told me he and his siblings left behind all kinds of junk when they moved out and Grandma stopped Grandpa from getting rid of anything.

“When they finally decided to clean out the basement,” he continued, “I came to claim what I wanted. I poked around the bookshelves and found that. I don’t even know who it belonged to, but no one cared that I took it.” He paused. “Hey, I think those are the same shelves we have now.” We each discovered that book in the same shelves. I smiled at how much alike we were becoming.

He recounted how this book opened his eyes to the diabolical world. It was The Screwtape Letters, not some heady academic book, that taught him the dangers of mediocrity. “You have to be careful, Mag,” he warned sincerely. “The devil has no stronger foothold than when you stop caring.” It struck me that he took so much away from this little piece of fiction, when it usually takes a precise, systematic argument to convince him. For some, this book picks at their perception of their own sin. I wondered if Dad felt it, too.

My good intentions to share Dad’s experience of the book never resulted in much: The book sat on my nightstand all summer, a coaster for countless glasses of water. In good faith, I packed it up for the move back to college, where it sat on a shelf all year because English majors don’t have time to read for fun. I’ve lost track of the book since then, but I hope it eventually lands on a basement bookshelf for Jack or Grace to find.

 

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