KR BlogReading

Family Bibles

On the family bookshelves now are hundreds of books—mostly my mom’s history texts (she taught history in high school for twenty years and then another ten in community colleges), a few novels, and some antique books. There aren’t many poetry books—there were none when I was growing up—but there are a few now.

This holiday, however, I’m looking for some of my childhood books–in particular, the 1976 set of the World Book Encyclopedia, which was the main text used to teach me to read. I find a stray Childcraft (“Mathemagic”), and an oversized Mother Goose, but no World Books—so my tour from “Alabama” to “Alaska” will have to wait.

(Next door, in an orphan volume of the 1966 World Book I find in my grandmother’s basement, the tour goes: “Alabama, University Of,” “Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College,” “Alabama College,” “Alabama Platform,” “Alabama Polytechnic Institute,” “Alabama River,” “alabaster,” “Alladin,” “Ala Juela,” “Alameda,” “Alameda Coast Guard Base,” “Alamein, El (see El Alamein),” “Alamo,” “Alanbrooke, Lord,” “Aland Islands,” “Alarcón, Pedro Antonio De,” “Alaric,” “Alarm, Burglar.”)

My mom now has possession of the two books that predate and outlast all others—the two family bibles. The older one–bought and kept by my great grandmother and passed down to my grandmother and at last to my mother–lies beneath the younger one, which my mother started after she and my father married.

These are, yes, religious books, but the stories I’m after today are not stories of the parting of seas, flaming clouds, or loaves and fishes–not bible stories, but the stories that are tucked into the book, tipped in between chapters and testaments.

In the middle of the older bible is a family register that shows that my great grandparents Thomas Jefferson Brown and Margaret Frances Johnston were married in August 1915. It lists their birthdates and birthplaces. My grandmother has written in the date of my great grandfather’s death and the location of his burial plot, but the lines to record my great grandmother’s death, in 1989, have never been completed. Above the date of marriage, at the top of the register, is a list of their parents and birthdates, reaching back all the way to 1833 when my great-great grandfather was born.

There’s a schematic history here—and not just in the range of dates. You can tell much of this page was filled in at once, calligraphed, perhaps by the bible salesman. Many of the letters are tooled with different colored inks, and each word has at least one paraph. What my grandmother and mother have filled in later has an entirely different character, tried in felt-tip and ball-point, in a hand that doesn’t know the old art.

In the pages of Numbers have been laid an insurance rate card, a warrantee for a sewing machine, a certificate that commends my great grandmother to the care of the local Masonic chapter following my great grandfather’s death, a Xeroxed page from an issue of The New Yorker that features an ad for St Thomas suitcases, and, inexplicably, a prep sheet for the midterm exam in the American Poetry course I took as an undergraduate at Auburn. There is here, too, an artifactual memory: the bible is, too, a reliquary of documents that tell parts of the family’s story.

This book has always been this way—a text, but also an archive—as far back as I can remember, and I must have taken in this image of the book, because my books are filled with such impedimenta—receipts, notes, fliers, subway cards, train tickets. For a while, I would tip into my reading copy of Murder Ballads whatever came into my hands at readings, and though I’ve had to empty the cache a few times (a 68-page book won’t hold much), there’s still a handbill for a Ballthrop, Alabama show and a set list for a reading sometime in late 2006.

I fold all these documents back into the bible and place it back on its shelf with the other one. I am called to the table to hold the hands that completed the register, that folded these certificates and tipped them in. Some day the book may come to me where I may fold this as well.