Wednesday, June 17, 2015

52 Ancestors: Heirloom

"Week 24 (June 11-17) – Heirloom: What heirloom do you treasure? Who gave it to you? What heirloom do you wish you had?" (No Story Too Small)

So, this week is the first week of a remodel...yep, fun. It will be worth it in the end, it will be worth it in the end, it will be worth it in the end... But I did want to take time to share my heirloom because it has a nice story.

Here is my heirloom:

Grandpa's bookcase
Nice, huh?

It didn't look so stately and lovely as it does now when it came to me. I had taken a week-long break from grad school in Utah and returned home to California to help my mother. Fortunately, I had finished my coursework and was working on my project and my internship supervisor was very supportive. Grandma's care had become such that she needed to move into an assisted living facility. My task during my break was to help Mom clean Grandma's house and hold a garage sale for Grandma to sell what Grandma couldn't use or couldn't find a home with family. It was tough--I think I'd rather go through more of this remodeling than relive that.

During the garage sale at the end of the week, the bookcase was brought down from the attic and put in the garage to be tagged. No one paid it any attention. No one tried to negotiate for it. No one wanted it. It looked old and tired, covered in scuff marks and likely not worth much.

But Mom recognized it from better days. It was Grandpa's bookcase.

The short bio about him on her website states that James Aloysius Carey "was born February 7, 1920 in San Francisco, California. He was an Eagle Scout. Jim attended U.C. Berkeley on a scholarship, majoring in chemical engineering. He served as an artillery spotter in World War II, and received the Bronze Star for bravery. He married Beulah Green, and had four children: Charles, Alice, Raymond, and William. Jim worked for the Bank of America as a computer research consultant, and played a pioneering role in establishing computer systems for the bank. He died October 22, 1992, in San Francisco."

James A. Carey

Grandpa was a quiet guy, though he did have a sense of humor, which many of his descendants seem to have inherited. And he was very smart. He'd keep a yellow tablet at his place at the head of the table when it wasn't set for dinner, along with a very sharp No. 2 pencil, and work out complex equations there in his free time.

Grandpa at his usual spot at the table
From left to right: Ray, Charlie, Grandma, Grandpa, Bill
Photo by my mother

He had a talent for finding out information. If he needed to build a brick wall, even though he hadn't done so before, he would look up how to in a book (remember, he died before the Internet was broadly used) and make one of the best brick walls any of us had ever seen. Once my mother, then working as a children's librarian, was helping a child find the state fish of Hawaii. She had exhausted the library's resources and had called Grandpa up. Not long after he returned the call and let her know that he had found its name--it was the humuhumunukunukuapua'a.

He would entertain me and my brother with science gadgets (such as a ball clock) and experiments. One time, he showed me how to calculate my average step length, then hooked a pedometer to me and had me bounce on a trampoline for a couple of minutes. We then calculated how many steps I would have to take to equal what the pedometer had registered from all that bouncing. As much as I disliked math in school, I enjoyed that special story problem!

We went with my grandparents on several trips. My first trip to Disneyland was with them. They took us to Carmel-by-the-Sea and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We went to their friends' farm and stayed over and I was able to ride a pony, collect peacock feathers, and feed chickens. Grandpa also introduced me to big band, Victor Borge, and Spike Jones.

And the books! There were books everywhere in my grandparents' house, in every room, except maybe the bathroom (keep a book where it might get dirty and wet! gasp!). There were several bookcases but not enough--there are never enough bookcases for Careys! I recently saw an idea on Pinterest about using stacks of books as decoration on the sides of a staircase. The pinner praised it as a novel idea ( I see the pun...groan) but to me it reminded me of Grandpa. There were books piled up on the steps up to the attic. The majority were non-fiction. There was some fiction, particularly of the James Michener sort. 

Thanksgiving at Grandma and Grandpa's
(note yet another bookcase in the corner)
Left to right: Grandma, Adam, Andrea, me, Mom, Grandpa, Ray, Bill

I remember as a child poring over books when I visited, which was often. My particular favorite was a book that showed wide variety of objects and labeled every part, some of the part names being pretty obscure. He also had a nice, very complete encyclopedia. In the time before the Internet, pulling a random volume and reading on a random subject was an especially effective way to learn widely.

As I said before, there were several bookcases. But the bookcase in question was an especially nice one and it had been Grandpa's boyhood bookcase. Apparently, he also had two beds in his room--one for sleeping, one that held the overflow from the bookcase.

Grandpa as a boy

Well, here it was, in sad condition, at a garage sale. And Mom seemed pretty sad about it. But then she suggested that if I wanted it, maybe we wouldn't have to sell it. I don't know what it was about that old, beat-up bookcase that made me want to take a chance on it. Maybe that it had been Grandpa's. Maybe that it was a bookcase and anything that could hold so many stories and knowledge must be special, even if it was scuffed and worn. Maybe it was the architectural details that hinted of past beauty. But I ended up putting a Sold tag on it.

The garage sale traffic ebbed and flowed throughout the day and in the quieter moments, I began to wipe the bookcase down with lemon furniture oil. The wood was thirsty, sucking in the oil as fast as I could put it down. But then as the wood began to suck in the oil it so desperately needed, something wonderful happened. The wood's beauty began to shine forth. It was solid, no laminates or veneers or plywood in it, made probably of mahogany.  And it had the patina of decades, glowing with its aged dignity from within. The scuffs lessened under my care and many disappeared until it looked antique but not worn. It was beautiful again.

A customer returned and spotted the bookcase, now marked Sold, and lamented that he had not bought it earlier. Others remarked on its beauty. I heard one person offer to buy it "if the other deal fell through." But it was going to stay with the granddaughter who loved books like the grandfather who had once filled it full of books.

Grandpa and my brother
Grandpa loved a good nap and a book, as do many of his descendants.

Right now, the bookcase and I have returned to the family home for the time being, where it's holding some of Mom's special items. But it has traveled with me to Utah and Virginia and has stood in my living room in my Salt Lake and Yorktown apartments. It has held my hardbound illustrated copies of Jane Austen and Tolkien novels, leatherbound works of the Bronte sisters, volumes of the works of latter-day prophets and scriptures and hymns, instuctional design texts, and other beloved books. Whatever it holds, books, statuary, or glass from the Jamestown Glasshouse, I regularly empty its shelves and wipe it down with the oil it needs. And it glows as if from within.

It reminds me of The Touch of the Master's Hand by Myra Brooks Welch:

’Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But held it up with a smile:
“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,
“Who’ll start the bidding for me?”
“A dollar, a dollar”; then, “Two!” “Only two?
Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?
Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
Going for three—” But no,
From the room, far back, a gray-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then, wiping the dust from the old violin,
And tightening the loose strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet
As a caroling angel sings.
The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said, “What am I bid for the old violin?”
And he held it up with the bow.
“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?
Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?
Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice,
And going, and gone!” said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried,
“We do not quite understand
What changed its worth.” Swift came the reply:
“The touch of a master’s hand.”
And many a man with life out of tune,
And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd,
Much like the old violin.
A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine,
A game—and he travels on.
He’s “going” once, and “going” twice,
He’s “going” and almost “gone.”
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought
By the touch of the Master’s hand.

President Boyd K. Packer gave a wonderful talk related to this poem. You may want to check it out.

The bookcase reminds me of this poem. It reminds me of Grandpa, a quiet man who had intelligence and humor to spare, particularly if you took the time to know him. And relating it to family history, it makes me think of the relatives of the past, sometimes neglected and passed over by the living and sometimes treasured, their memories preserved and made to live again.

Next week's challenge from No Story Too Small: "Week 25 (June 18-24) – The Old Homestead: Have you visited an ancestral home? Do you have photos of an old family house? Do you have homesteading ancestors?" Yes, and I think it's time to return to Utah--Pleasant Grove to be specific.