Why do you write? Because it's cheaper than therapy I usually reply. Here's another reason.
In search of an out-of-print book I needed for my research, I went online to a used book site, found the book, ordered it, but instead of logging off, I decided to find out if any of my books were for sale. I typed in my name and soon dozens of booksellers appeared. I scrolled through the list until a headline caught my eye. “Title page inscribed” announced a bookseller in Pretty Prairie, Kansas. There was my biography of Eva Le Gallienne, selling for $30.00, with the inscription “With love – Helen, October 1996” and some words “blackened out.” I had autographed many books, but few were signed with love and with my first name.
I’ve lived in Connecticut for over forty years, but I have relatives and some close friends in Kansas and Oklahoma where I grew up—could one of them have sold it? And if so, why?
You’re being ridiculous, I told myself, who cares? Used bookstores are filled with books signed by their authors, often with extremely personal inscriptions—I’ve even bought some myself without a second thought. Still, I couldn’t stop wondering who had sold my book to make a few bucks or who had thought so little of me and my work that they had parted with an inscribed copy. I wanted to know, but I felt queasy about what I might discover.
I called the bookseller in Pretty Prairie and asked him to see if he could make out to whom the book was inscribed. He told me that he could read “For” and then a word beginning with “D,” which could be “Dorothy,” he said and another word beginning with “S.” I hung up the phone. I had given a book to my friend Doris, a poet who lives in Massachusetts. No, she would never part with her copy.
That night, a thought jolted me awake from a sound sleep. I knew the identity of “D” and “S.” I couldn’t be sure, though, until I actually saw the book. The next morning, I went back online, found the Pretty Prairie bookseller, and placed the order. A week later, the book arrived. I ripped the brown paper wrapper away, turned to the title page, and there were the blackened out names, both ending in a long, looping “y” just as I had remembered writing them: “For Daddy and Sally—”
My mother died in 1985, and my father remarried. After a dispute with two of my brothers, in anger at his sons or at fate or at his aging body, Daddy gathered up all of our family albums, framed portraits, even the family Bible, and he threw everything into a pit in a field and set them on fire. As the flames turned our family’s history into ashes, Daddy and his wife Sally left the farm never to return.
For years I tried to be a peacemaker, keeping in touch with everyone and trying to befriend Sally. I failed as a peacemaker, but Sally and I became cordial, even friendly. I was with my father not long before he died, and I know that he loved me. But I also know that he wouldn’t have minded that Sally sold my book. As a young man, Daddy worked as a cowboy, a bootlegger and a boxer, and finally settled on farmer when he married my mother. As long as he had work to do, food to eat, a bed to sleep in, and gas for his pick-up, possessions mattered little to him—least of all books, even a book written by his daughter.
As far as I know, my father never read a book, but he loved stories. I grew up listening to his tales presented as absolute truth, which my mother called “damn lies.” I wonder what he would think of this narrative? I know he would get a kick out of the circular journey my book has taken. I think he’d tease me that I paid too much to reclaim it.
“Everything changes, everything dies,” I can hear Daddy say. He’s right. Someday, I’ll die and all of my treasured possessions, including this inscribed book I now hold in my hands, will be sold or discarded or given away or burned up in a fire. Until that day, I will continue to write because words and stories have the power to stir dead ashes into living flame.