I never went to my grandfather Hal’s funeral; with three papers to write, I had too much coursework to come home for three full days. He died at the most inconvenient time.
I should pay my respects, my family argued. Transportation was easy enough; I could have taken an airplane. But my parents told me it was my decision, and I chose to stay at school and finish the week and come back for Thanksgiving as I always did.
Part of me wanted to stay clear of the land mine that going home would entail. The freedoms of college melted the fear and anxiety that plagued my adolescent years. I was free from judgment, classification and responsibilities. To return to indentured servitude was a dangerous proposition I didn’t want to face.
My grandfather had been fighting diabetes and alzheimer’s for 10 years when he died at the age of 88. By the end of it, he couldn’t even remember his wife of nearly 60 years let alone me or my father. All he could remember were small snippets of memories, such as his time playing french horn in the military band after World War II or flunking his history exam at Yale.
Then came the retirement home, and after that, it was a swift irreversible decline into senility. Before long, he spent all his time sleeping in bed and shuffling around. Despite the near constant decline of his mental state, he had nothing but a bright smile on his face when he was around people. His eyes would shine like a small child’s.
“Oh, boy!” he would say to my father. “Would ya look at that! How ya doin?”
My father would feign excitement.
“Hey, Dad. How are they treating you?”
To me, Hal died a long time ago when he languished in a hospital bed at a small retirement home far in the middle of nowhere Ohio. His eyes were glazed over and his comb over was barely attended to. Each word he said sounded like it would be his last gasp. He died when looked his wife and had no idea who she was: the woman he ignored and cheated on. Some awkward funeral with all my family members wouldn’t change any of that. I’d just be there for everyone else who hadn’t seen the dull confusion in his eyes I had witnessed.
The Thanksgiving after Hal’s death, my father and I spent a whole day going through all of his things at his old office. The company recently sold the office building and had to clear everything out in a month.
The office had always been relatively empty as AdWriter, my grandfather’s crowning achievement, had little success toward the end of his career. Broken office equipment like printers, monitors, CDs, expensive artwork, cheap plastic black furniture, small decorated pumpkins, wires and piles of papers lounged quietly near the front door.
In his office, we found an entire career in publishing reduced to scraps of paper. His cabinets were filled with receipts, letters, phone call transcriptions, notes, bills, addresses, everything. According to my father, he would remember their contents too. He would call out to his secretaries to pull out obscure files with specific documents for his personal reference.
In his office were volume upon volume of books, ranging from $150 to $1000. Some were famous works such as “The Brothers Karamazov” to the completely obscure such as “English Architecture: 1590-1630.” All of them had that old musty book smell.
There was an English book about why the pope should be castrated written in 1700. A Japanese book written by a Westerner who recorded the history of the small town in Japan he lived in. An entire collection nearly everything Charles Bukowski ever wrote stacked about 50 books high had been locked away in Hal’s closet. Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s adorned the walls like movie posters.
I assumed most of these books were never been read since there were so many of them, but when I read through his journals, which detail every single detail of every single day of his life for nearly 15 years, the man devoured books like he did fine wine. Nearly every book was dog eared, and even some had extensive notes written in the margins.
My father cursed, pushing a massive box of books. He lifted it onto the hand dolly and pushed the load of boxes towards the parked car outside.
I flipped through an old collection of papers. One was a letter from Hal’s friend from Yale, Link Day, who was visiting northern Yemen to study demographic changes in the country. Link wrote to inform him of the danger and illegality with which he gained accesses to the country. He didn’t have a visa, but the Syrian airline couldn’t care less about the law, and so, he entered a country few Americans will ever go.
The blue paper of the letter was very delicate as it was roughly 30 years old. Small tears had emerged out of the corners of the folds. The typeface was worn and formal. Small little X’s crossed out whole phrases and parts of sentences. Lincoln couldn’t help but edit the letter. There were about five letters of similar appearance, all from Lincoln, who remained one of Hal’s best friends throughout his life.
While Link studied in Yemen and Syria, Hal sat comfortably in a large air conditioned office supervising the writing, printing, and publishing of nearly 20 different newspapers across northern Ohio. Many of these eschewed the traditional column format newspapers had adopted and maintained since the mid 1800’s, instead using full color photographs and images to rope in customers.
At first, the success of such an innovation was limited. Numerous papers failed to gain traction in the market. However, by the 1970s, photo journals became the family bread-and-butter and Hal stood atop a massive media empire. As realty books became more important, Hal and Co. quickly joined in on the frenzy. These small plastic books exploded during the housing boom of the 1980s and 1990s, literally printing money. Hal sat like an emperor on top of the publishing world.
Those who knew my grandfather described him as a brilliant, comical and socially empowered man, but I never saw that side of him. He was just the old guy who kept to his books. There were few moments of clarity and connection in our relationship.
One such time in Arizona, when we were driving in the Mercedes my grandfather had bought for my Aunt’s wedding and had driven ever since, he explained to me his obsession with books, how he had been taught to read at a young age. He told me about his parents, an English teacher and school administrator, imparted the love of literature into him at a young age, much like how my father did the same with me.
The seats were furry like a massive dog and the top popped off, letting in the air. It was one of the most comfortable places I have ever been in my life. With my grandfather’s jazz humming in the background, I felt untouchable by either time or place. But, most of the time, he either forgot my name or left us kids alone to do as we pleased.
Ex Libris is a latin phrase that means “from the library of.” It is often used by book collectors to signify the bounds of their paper empires, long stretches of bookshelves filled with obscure tome after obscure tome.
As my father and I packed up box after box of rare, obscure books, an empire was divided apart into tiny, fractured kingdoms. Much like my grandfather’s declined mental state, so to was the formidable collection of human knowledge he spent a lifetime consuming shattered into fragmented bits.
Hal could easily talk to anyone about anything. His breadth of knowledge was overwhelming. He could have a full conversation with my nerdy uncle about the follies of Marcus Aurelius and then ramble about the recent Browns playoff game without taking a breath.
However, locked in the confines of the retirement home, Hal couldn’t even remember where he was let alone Frank Lloyd Wright’s contributions to the world of architecture.
The library was gone.