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Diary: Rebecca Chace, A House Made of Books
The author (far right) with her family: Sarah Chace, Jean Valentine, James Chace, shortly after her parents’ second marriage. Photo: Maggie Valentine
All that’s left is to close the door and click the padlock, but this cold metal storage facility suddenly looks like a church. Facing me are two rows of white boxes with a narrow path down the center. I’m the idiot who’s been paying rent on this unit for nearly twenty years, and I’ve just taped handwritten labels at the front of each aisle: “Mom” and “Dad.”
In the space of a decade, my parents married each other four times and divorced twice. They’re both gone now, but their books have finally gotten back together.
I grew up in a house made of books. My mother was a poet and teacher; my father wrote history and foreign policy. We were comfortably middle class, but it was easier to find books of poetry on the kitchen counter than a loaf of bread. My mother wrote out quotations and taped them to the wall: Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Basho. Words were more important than food. There were passionate arguments, laughter, and friends leaning in with their elbows on the table. New York was the city my parents and their friends came to as young writers. Some nights, Politics would slam the door and Poetry would light another cigarette and watch her reflection in the window. If the silence woke me up, I reached for a flashlight and a book the way other children reach for a stuffed animal.
My parents’ first marriage was secret, though nobody said “eloped,” a romantic word that makes me think of antelopes singing harmony. The antelope wedding was followed by a white-glove wedding in Boston, after my mother told her parents she had married a scholarship boy from Fall River, Massachusetts—a city best known for Lizzie Borden’s axe murders. Ten years and two daughters later came their first divorce, and with it the separation of their shared bookshelves. They still spent their days typing one letter after another onto the page, but now they were pursuing different words. My mother placed line breaks, and my father built paragraphs. Each carried their books to new apartments on opposite sides of Central Park, he on the East, she on the West. They remarried each other two years later, another civil wedding followed by a Catholic ceremony for the benefit of my mother, who hardly ever went to church but whose poetry looked to the sacred. These marriages were “the triumph of hope over experience” as my father liked to quote from Samuel Johnson, leaning his elbows back on the kitchen table where they belonged. I didn’t understand why all the grown-ups laughed when he said it; marriage was a riddle I didn’t have the answer to. Maybe they thought if they did something twice over, it would stick.
The second divorce came nine months later.
Again, their books were separated into cardboard boxes and the movers came. This time I noticed both had inscribed their names on the books’ frontispieces, usually in pencil, which simplified things. If there were arguments about who owned which book, I wasn’t aware of it. In their new apartments, they each filled long wooden bookshelves painted white. It was years before my father installed built-in bookshelves for Talleyrand, the Congress of Vienna, and Graham Greene. My mother had books by her favorite poets and contemporaries, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, Jane Kenyon, and others, mixed in with chapbooks from students and friends. I loved these hand-printed chapbooks best. Mom placed objects along her bookshelves so they resembled shrines: a clock with a hand-painted landscape below the face, a stone, an empty glass bowl.
I loved my parents, I loved books, I wrote all the time, but I didn’t want to be like them. My mother’s single-minded pursuit of the right word was both exalted and despairing, while my father’s brilliance was fueled in part by the cruel competition of the publishing world. In my early twenties I ran away to the circus, became a trapeze artist, then married someone I loved and admired who was at the heart of the West Coast “New Vaudeville” scene, a juggler who made me laugh. Two daughters later, we divorced, and I found myself living as a writer in New York, two books published and D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths propped up in a cookbook holder so I could read to the girls over dinner. It was a way to pass the repetitive evenings as a single parent. “You’re bringing them up just like you,” said a boyfriend who had known my family. “Books at the table.”
“I am not!” I said, knowing he was right. My sister tells a story of having a school friend over for a playdate who was dumbfounded when she and Dad picked up their books at lunch time instead of making conversation over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
My sister offered her a copy of Frog and Toad.
My girls didn’t always like the books from my childhood. I read all three volumes of The Hunger Games so I could be part of their conversation. We leaned our elbows on the table and argued about what happened in Book Three.
My father died in 2004, and my mother in 2020. When Dad had the heart attack, one of my questions was: which book fell from his hand? All I knew was that he was researching a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. When my mother was in the hospital, no longer responsive, I read poetry to her from her bookcase: Dickinson, Bishop, and Basho. The ex-boyfriend told me that his mother, also a poet, had rearranged the books next to her bed in her final days, “keeping old friends close.” I’m not expecting to die any time soon, but I want to tell my daughters to give away all the books they don’t want after I’m gone. Be ruthless about it. The madness must end! I think as I close the door to the storage unit, knowing that I may never clear out my parents’ books.
The truth is, I like having them together now. There is a comforting irony to this literary resting place for two writers who loved their books but were not able to keep themselves together in one place. A child of divorce may yearn for their parents to get back together, believe the bonds of the shared family are stronger than whatever is driving them apart. Frog and Toad have arguments and misunderstandings, but they never break up. When my parents divorced each other for the second time I was still a child, but it marked the end of a certain kind of longing for me. This is another thing we learn from fairy tales: be careful what you wish for.
My parents eventually married someone other than each other and became good friends later in life. My father used a quotation from one of my mother’s poems as the epigraph for his memoir, and there are traces of him throughout my mother’s work, though the most important thing he did for her in those years was to convince her not to let go of her apartment when she moved to Ireland with her second husband. As all New Yorkers know, apartments often last longer than marriages. But sometimes I wonder if the Irish marriage foundered because she left most of her books behind.
When I married for the second time, I chose someone very different from my first husband. I brought my books to his place, but remembering my father’s advice to my mother, I kept the lease on my old apartment. We may move back there together someday. It’s an elevator building, and I still have some books to unpack into a set of white bookshelves I saved from my mother’s apartment. For now, they’re waiting together in the storage unit.
Rebecca Chace is the author of two novels, Leaving Rock Harbor and Capture the Flag; a memoir, Chautauqua Summer; a children's book, June Sparrow and the Million Dollar Penny; as well as plays, screenplays, and nonfiction essays.
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