Martin’s House of Books

Most days she loved her work. She loved the ‘standing on the threshold’ tentative bravery of the sixth graders she taught: their readiness to explore new territory. She liked searching out accessible translations of classic works–a modern Odyssey, perhaps,– and sorting through the latest young adult offerings to find the finest, most meaningful, most compelling pieces to share with her class. She even liked grading their essays, although with two a week, it was a never-ending chore. But she saw their growth, in thought, in craft, in expression.

That was most days. Some days nothing clicked and many things grated. The students snickered and tweeted; parents complained; the school administration badgered her with reminders of soon-due reports and the necessity of administering state-mandated testing during precious class time.

On those days, she looked at her students, who were not looking back, and doubted she was even making a dent. She pondered how to respond civilly but cogently to the note from the parent who thought her son’s English homework was taking precious time away from his basketball participation. She got out her big paper calendar and tried to see how she could fit the damned tests into the schedule of lessons and still cover all the essential topics. And she wondered why she was pouring herself into this thankless, thankless job.

On those days, she wished life came with a backdoor which she could just walk out for a while, leaving all the hassling behind.

On those days, she packed up her things after the school day ended and went to Martin’s House of Books.

She’d leave her car at home, dumping the heavy bag of schoolwork in the corner by the china cabinet, and put her canvas shopping bag, neatly folded and waiting on her desk for just these excursions, into her purse. And then she’d walk the half mile to Martin’s, down the hill, past where the neatly creepy gothic manse perched, and onto Alder Avenue, a working class street with bars and resale shops, automotive supply retailers, convenience stores, and sturdy old family homes.

It was in one of those sturdy, broad-porched houses that Martin Dempsey had his bookstore.

She always stopped on the porch to look at the clearance books; they stayed on the little shelf centered in front of the picture window until they sold. Some had been there since the day she discovered the shop. She’d open one of them–a vintage copy, say, of James Michener’s Hawaii–and hold it up to her nose: musty and crisp all at once. The pages were yellowed with age, and finely spotted.

She’d pull on the screen door and go inside. The house had no vestibule. A step through the door took her right into the first common room. The stairs stared right at her; Martin sat at his desk just to her right. And everywhere there were books.

The cookbooks lined the facing wall, and she always browsed through those first. She could spend an evening with a good cookbook, and if it was a cookbook memoir–well, she’d turn off her phone. She loved the classic food memoirists–MFK Fisher, Gladys Taber–and she liked the sassy new blogger-type writers–I Loved I Lost I Ate Spaghetti; Lunch in Paris: a Love Story with Recipes.

She’d say hello to Martin and survey the cookbooks, checking to see what was new. Well, new to Martin–all of his books were used, of course; rarely did he offer anything printed in the last year.

While she looked, Martin would slide off his stool behind the desk, and, as he put it, “pop into the kitchen.” He’d put the tea kettle onto his gas stove. This was Martin’s actual kitchen; he lived in the bookstore, and often she could smell a delicious roasting dinner. He lived alone, Martin did, —alone with thousands of books— but he believed in what he called “real meals”, and he made good use of the cookbooks on his shelves.

By the time she had explored the cookbooks–maybe setting aside a Jacques Pepin or something by Alice Waters–the tea was steeping in Martin’s little turquoise ceramic pot, a pot which had been his mother’s. He would bring out two sturdy mismatched mugs from the local pottery–one might have hand-painted pansies, the other a rustic plaid pattern,–and a delicate china plate. One of the things she liked so much about Martin, one of the things they shared, was a reverence for everyday objects with history. He used his mother’s dishes, things he’d eaten from as a child, that reminded him of that special woman. He made his living sharing the literature from the past century–sometimes, his books were even older than that.

There’d be two cookies on the china plate, large flat cookies, golden, sugar-studded, crispy brown on the edges. The cookies crunched and exploded; they were all butter and sugar, outrageous flavor. Martin made them once a week and shared them, he assured her, only with his most cherished customers.

They would settle in, with their mugs of Earl Grey, for a chat; she sat on a folding chair on one side of the counter, and he climbed back onto his stool behind it. One of the cats (there were two; the other was a woman-hater) came and curled up under her chair. It would yowl softly, hopelessly, wanting a chunk of cookie, knowing that would probably never happen. The tea and the food sat next to the adding machine he used for a cash register. He took cash and he took checks, Martin did; he didn’t deal in plastic. She could leave her credit cards, her debit card, at home.

Martin, who was cranky, opinionated, and very, very kind, would prompt her. “What,” he would ask, “are the little shits up to now?”

She would talk it through; Martin had taught high school history for 25 years, and he would guide her so that she didn’t stumble down into the land of misery. She would start out bemoaning the woeful receptivity of modern children to literature and thoughtful inquiry. And he would agree. But by the time she was finished, she’d be acknowledging that the latest project, in which the children wrote letters to characters or illustrated book jackets, was actually working quite well.

Martin would listen carefully. He was an odd looking man with parts that didn’t quite match. He was tall, but his face was round except for a jutting chin. He had slender shoulders and strongly muscled arms. His eyes were the piercing blue found in the Irish isles he loved so much. He had straight lank hair, gray and brown and white, and it fell, a limp bang, into his eyes.

These days, he seldom left his shop; a friend came in on Wednesday mornings and spelled him so he could take his big old muscle car out, do his shopping, pay his bills,– which he did in person, not by mail, if possible. He went to St. Nicholas Church’s 8 AM Mass on Sundays. In his youth, he had served in Viet Nam, and afterwards, he had not come home; he had gone to Ireland, to the Pacific Northwest, to Nova Scotia, back to Ireland. Had there been someone special there?

She wondered.

He came home finally, got married, got his schooling, took a teaching job. They’d never had children, and somewhere in that net of years, his wife had left. He retired early to care for his mother; she had left his father, too, but she moved into a house–this house–two doors down from the old man.

Martin kept his father updated throughout his mother’s illness. The old man brought the dog to visit and took care of his wife’s garbage and yard work. She slipped away in the middle of one night, without fuss or bother, as Martin nodded beside her bed.

He started sorting through her things, through her hundreds and hundreds of books, and then just gave up, moved into the house, built shelves, and opened a used bookstore. In the beginning, he closed on Thursday and Friday and traveled the state, going to sales and thrift shops, collecting even more books; now, people brought their books to him; his inventory grew and shifted, ebbed and flowed, and he stayed closer and closer to home.

She’d learned all this through the course of several visits. He would also tell her of some specific teaching disaster that would make her laugh–one time, he said, his students were so angry at a pop quiz (given because he had been so angry at their lack of preparation for his class) that they stormed out of the school when the bell rang and somehow hefted his Volkswagen Beetle onto the roof. It made a fetching sort of hood ornament, he allowed now, but in the day, he had failed, pretty much, to see the humor.

They had, he said, a helluva time getting it down.

He had refused, of course, to press charges, and some of those ‘boys’ visited the shop monthly now, small children, older children, grandchildren, in tow.

As they talked, they would savor their cookies, crumbs bursting onto counter and books, and she would lick her fingers and pick the crumbs up and eat them. The cat would sigh. When the tea was gone, Martin would clear his throat and clear their dishes away; conversation time was over. She would prowl through the shop.

Children’s books rested in and around and above the fireplace on the wall to the right of Martin’s desk–lots of Beatrix Potter, and an odd jumble that delighted her–every episode of the Babysitter’s Club; Anne of Green Gables; Lois Ehlert picture books; a series she especially liked by a British author about a boy named Tom and his stuffed monkey, Pippo; a random copy or two of a Hunger Games volume. The classics–Black Beauty, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Secret Garden,– were jammed onto shelves right inside the fireplace itself, paperbacks, hard covers. She often chose her next class read-aloud from inside Martin’s fireplace.

Then, ignoring the really old books and first editions housed behind Martin’s desk, she’d move back into what must have been his mother’s dining room. He had shelves from floor to twelve foot ceiling, and the room was a cave of fiction, with one wall of nonfiction and biography. She always found something there to soothe her–a Rosamund Pilcher or a Marcia Willet, Maeve Binchy, Jane Austen–something light and faraway, with likable, believable people and troubles that resolved by the end of the book.

She would take the books she’d chosen and leave them on the counter; Martin, who was reading, would grunt. And she would head upstairs, to where the paperbacks waited, in two old bedrooms, on wire racks that turned. High, unwieldy stacks crowned each rack, so that she didn’t dare actually turn them; she would snake through. She had a couple of mysteries she liked; Lord Peter Wimsey was a good read, and she liked the exploits of Dame Frevisse. There was a contemporary series about knitters in a seaside village that seemed to be a breeding ground for murders; those were fun and required no literary criticism or unraveling of symbolism on her part.

The back room held spy thrillers, cowboy series, military books. She didn’t usually go in there. Through a door on the back wall, always cracked open, she could see Martin’s Jenny Lind style bed, gleaming wood, chenille bedspread tightly pulled and tucked under the pillows. On the wall above, two pictures hung: a red toned Jesus with his sacred heart; the blessed Mother all in blue.

And then she would go downstairs, put her paperbacks on top of her other finds, and Martin would tot up her costs. She’d pull out her canvas tote, and they’d pack up her loot and say goodbye.

At the door, she’d always turn slightly and Martin would give her this funny little salute, first touching the index finger of his right hand to his right eyebrow and then pointing at her. She would smile and let the door slam gently behind her, swinging her bagful of books, swinging down the porch stairs, out onto the sidewalk.

Those were ‘can of soup’ nights; she’d heat one up on the gas stove, and eat at the table with a book splayed open next to her. She’d forgo doing any schoolwork, instead running a hot bath, soaking while she read. Often she’d finish the book in bed.

She’d think about Martin and his students and wonder–she, who was a relative newcomer to this town–if any of her sixth graders had descended from those boys who muscled that little car up onto the high school roof.

The next day, she’d walk back into her life, and always it turned out to be better. She was relaxed, the kids were in tune, the obstacles and irritations were bearable. She loved her work, even knowing that a different day would roll around, maybe next week, maybe next month. Knowing, too, that Martin’s House of Books was there, a doorway into a different world, an escape hatch when she needed it.

Sacrifice and Celebration–different definitions

The sun is pouring through my dining room window as I write this in the early morning of Easter 2014–a glorious sun, like a metaphor, like a proof.  The season of sacrifice is over, and the day of celebration has arrived.

I made my pig-picking cake this morning, and we feasted on that for breakfast; there is Anthony-Thomas chocolate waiting on the counter. In an hour or two, we’ll get in the car and drive for five hours to the home of Mark’s parents, and we’ll feast again, on traditional Easter noshes provided by Mark’s brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Susan.

Lent is over; the season of sacrifice is over.  But I keep thinking about some young men I met recently.  Their time of sacrifice seems to roll on and on.

We were putting together, at the College where I work, a workshop called ‘Dealing with Challenging Classroom Situations,’ and planning what topics to cover: What to do when a student is hostile, or helpless, or rude or distracted.  How to proceed when a student stops coming to class or shares dire information about a family situation.  What actions to take when a student really seems to need accommodations but refuses to seek them, or conversely, says s/he needs them, but doesn’t have the paperwork to support the claim.

We were talking about which campus experts could best cover which topic when my young colleague Heather made a suggestion.

“Why,” she said, “don’t you talk about about returning veterans in the classroom?”

So that’s exactly what we did.  Heather, who is one of our outstanding veterans’ support officers, gave us some scenarios, dug up grant money for refreshments and door prizes, and found three student veterans, all young men, to serve as resource people.

We set up the panel discussion in a ‘speed-dating’ format, so the participants, in small groups, spent fifteen minutes talking to each of five sets of ‘experts’.  When the whistle blew (or in this case, when the screaming monkey doll flew to the center of the floor), each group moved to the table to their left, and a new discussion.

There was great information being shared from the Advising Center, from Disability Services, from the Student Success personnel who help track down the absentee student.  But what the student veterans had to say impressed people the most. They didn’t talk about their service, except to tell us where they’d served–one in Kuwait, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.

“How was it?” someone asked, clumsily.

There was a pause, and then–I’m making up these names–Kurt said, “It was hot.”

Steve added, “It was really hot.”

And Bill agreed.  “You’ve never seen hot like that hot.”

And that was the extent of their comments on active duty.

(It reminded me of the only time I’d ever seen my father get truly, white-edged angry. We were at a family-style picnic and an acquaintance of my dad’s was holding forth on World War II.

“I saw my buddies die on either side of me,” the man said.  “I’ll never forget how it sounded. I’ll never forget the smell of battle.”

Not long after the man started expounding, my parents bundled us into the old Buick, and we headed home.  But before he started the car, Dad–who never got mad, and very seldom used any kind of vulgar language–said, “That horse’s ass was a typewriter jockey.  He never left the States.”

He added, “If you’ve been there, you don’t talk about it.”)

What the student veterans did tell us, though, was about the difficulties they encounter transitioning from active duty into the classroom. They don’t like to sit with their backs to a room’s only entry.  They are there to learn, and they are really bothered when other students goof off, are rude, or disrespect an instructor.

Kurt told a story about a classmate who, asked to pull something up on a computer screen, displayed a vulgar and distasteful picture.

“The instructor turned beet-red, but tried to play it down,” he said.  “She said, ‘Oh, I think you got one of those annoying pop-ups.’  I wish she would have told her, though.  I wish she would have kicked her out.”

They talked about the conditions they brought back from war matter-of-factly.

“I let all my instructors know that I might have to leave the classroom when my PTSD kicks in,” said Steve.  “They’ve been good.”

They talked about wounds to limbs and wounds to brains.  Traumatic Brain Injury was a common enough circumstance to warrant its own acronym–TBI.

And they talked about their struggles in the classroom.  Most times, they said, a vet won’t complain.  He or she will just cope, or if that doesn’t work, drop the class.

Should we ask veterans to identify themselves in the classroom? an instructor asked.

The young men looked at each other.

If it’s relevant, they agreed.  If the class is talking about war, or the military, or a Middle Eastern country, of course, ask if anyone’s been there and done that.

But to recognize vets and say thank you?  Not so much, they said.

They just want to get their degrees, move on, and get jobs.  They’re not looking for praise or gratitude or recognition.  Just make it possible for us, they told us, to get this job done.

After the workshop, a participant said, “Boy, give me twenty four students like THAT in my classroom.”

Amazing, we all agreed. But it was a perilous and overly costly course for these young men to reach their points of extreme maturity.

Much of what the young vets said–and one looked young enough to be a high school senior–nagged at me.  I went home and did some research, and what I found isn’t very ‘feel-good’ information.

An article in the Huffington Post (3/19/13), tells me the transition back to civilian life is fraught with hardship.  Unemployment for post-9/11 vets is higher than the national average.  Medicine, the article said, is making it possible for veterans to survive with catastrophic injuries–or, to be blunt, wounds that not so long ago would have killed the veteran are being treated successfully, and people are returning to civilization a different form of themselves–missing limbs, brains irreparably damaged or changed,–and they are expected to get back to normal life.

In 2010, the article stated, 22 returning vets committed suicide EACH DAY, and 228,875 vets who served in the Middle East conflicts had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Homelessness among returning vets, according to the Huffington Post, was still way high, but getting a little better.  At the same time, veterans’ education benefits were being suspended by several branches of the military.

I got on the Wounded Warrior website and reviewed the results of their survey of the veterans who, returning with one of those catastrophic injuries and looking to the program for help, had offered their insights. Depression and PTSD hover around 75 per cent for this group; they have sleep issues, and their energy is low, and many state that they require the assistance of another person or program to get through the day. It’s an eye-opening report; if time allows, you may want to look it up.

What can we do?  The best I’ve been able to come up with is to create a place where we can comfortably talk. In a kind of accidental serendipity, and because of Heather’s outreach, the workshop provided that.  It opened my eyes, and the eyes of my colleagues. I’m proud to work at a College with an official “Veteran Friendly” designation, proud of my colleague Heather and the wonderful work her office does.

This Easter morning unfolds, and my silly little sacrifices–no chocolate, no soda pop, no noshing after dinner–come to an end. There ought to be a different word for that kind of giving up, a smaller, less consequential word, than the one used to describe what the young veterans we talked to gave up in their active duty tours.

I hope, on this day of celebrating new life, that each of them can find that, can move beyond the nightmares of the memories they’ll never share to a future that is rich in achievement and joy.

So here’s my prayer this Easter season: Lord, help returning veterans find a place where life holds joy and promise again. And help us end this fighting, in a swift, just, and compassionate way, so no more young people have to make this transition.  Amen.