Being Prepared – Cathe Smith
There was a farmer and his wife, and they had a beautiful farm on the rolling prairie. There was the 80-ft hand dug well faced with local limestone, and the numerous outbuildings required for small self-sufficient farms in the early 1900s. There was the sheep pasture in the front of the house for the sheep, and the spreading Burr Oaks lining the ravine. There was the barn with foundation walls a foot thick and made from fieldstones, with its walls held up by eight-inch beams.
The house was a solid thing of cement blocks with a deep basement and lots of windows to let in the light. The farmer and his wife filled it with music from their record collection, and the wife decorated with crocheted pillowcases on the beds and anti-massacres on the chairs.
And the farmer and his wife loved to read; history books, how-to books, biographies, everything and anything that caught their fancy. They filled their house with love and books. Every room of their farmhouse had homemade bookcases filled with books. The farmer and his wife were known in the community as readers, and their friends would call upon them to settle bets or find information.
Eventually the farmer’s wife died, and the farmer cleaned out a few of her things from the house but kept the china and kept the 50th wedding anniversary plates they had been given. He kept her scarves, and the crocheted pillowcases, and kept her crafting books and magazines. In the fullness of time, the farmer himself died and the house, all of belongings of the farmer and his wife, the farm, and the farm land were inherited by a sister.
The sister did nothing with the farm or the house, and so the books sat on their shelves waiting. Eventually vandals and thieves broke in, looking for things to steal and wanting to cause mischief. The books were flipped through, because sometimes old people hid money in them, and then they were tossed on the floor. They knocked over furniture, looking for hidden things, and ripped out wiring from the walls.
Then came the kids looking for a place to party, they threw things around sometimes just to hear the noise something made when it was broken. They scattered old clothes around, and threw the silk scarves the farmer had kept onto the ground. The books on the floor became just another surface to stand on. Or try to burn.
In the quiet times, the animals came in looking for a place to shelter. Raccoons and opossums used the books as their litter box, and rodents used them as shelter. Birds nested in what was left of the light fixtures and vines grew along the ceilings. And underneath it all, the insects came in. The Dermestid beetles eating old paper and glue from the bindings, the book lice eating the mold and fungal spores, the caterpillars eating the rotting cellulose, and the centipedes and spiders that made their homes in such a rich hunting ground.
And with that first window broken, the damp came in. It settled into the books and helped mold and mildew grow. It warped covers, and destroyed bindings. It caused ink to run and colors to fade.
For 15 years the house stood, with its furnishings slowly going to ruin. There were those in the community that pleaded with the sister to sell the contents of the house and put the farm on the market. It was on the rolling prairie, the soil was good and the property was desirable. But the sister did nothing until her health was failing and she started disposing of her property to pay for her care.
By that time, the books were beyond saving. I shoveled first-edition military history books into a front-end loader along with biographies of interesting people, old crafting magazines, and early scientific farming books. And every load was dumped into the brush fire. I used a barn shovel to scoop up scattered books a foot deep in the house, and watched them all burn.
The almost physical pain watching those books burn caused in me was surprising. I was telling myself that the books were just things; just possessions and that I was being overly emotional, but books aren’t just things. Books are some of the longest lasting repositories of data storage we have, they are what help us remember what are, show us what we can be, and remind us of times when we should have known better.
And to watch someone’s book collection, and indeed 98 percent of their belongings put on the scrap heap, made it worse. No matter what a person believes about the afterlife, or if they believe in one at all, we all hope that the things we leave behind will make someone happy. We hope that the boxes of books your family sells at the auction will go to someone that will get some enjoyment out of their use, that the set of china you leave your niece will help her set up her house one day, that the set of old knives you leave your son will help him pay off the debts he never told you about.
So the lesson I learned that dreary day is this: It is not enough to have someone to leave your possessions to, you must leave them with instructions on how to dispose of it. Because if you don’t, whatever you hoped would happen, whatever joy you thought you’d left behind might all end up in smoke on a cold day in January.