Formerly the property of
Charles Coffing Beach MD
given now by his son
Goodwin Batterson Beach Litt. D & LHD
to his granddaughter
Melissa Hamilton Thompson
The above is the inscription in the first volume of The Riverside Natural History, which set of books my grandfather gave me a couple of months before he died. Published in 1884, there are six volumes, each weighing nearly six pounds. I have another book from his library, Erasmus’ Translation of the New Testament into Latin. There isn’t a single word of English in this small volume, but I at least I can read the numbers; this one was published in 1543. Throughout the book, each page has a column of the original Greek side by side with Erasmus’ Latin translation. I used to be able to read the Greek reasonably well with some lexical help and was also generally able to read the Latin. Sadly, I am now very rusty in both languages.
Granddaddy often spoke to me in Latin, insisting that Latin was a living language that could still be spoken in everyday life. I absorbed Latin words as part of the air I breathed, since I’d heard him speaking Latin to me from the time I was a baby. Even when Granddaddy spoke English, it was sprinkled with many now-archaic words and expressions that were archaic even then and have given me a lasting love of beautiful and seldom-used words. In addition to inspiring a love for language and languages, Granddaddy was one of the people who inspired in me a love of all learning, not only the languages he loved, but also the animals and nature that I was most drawn to. Hence the gift of The Riverside Natural History, as well as numerous books about animals and veterinarians throughout my childhood.
I put Volume 1 of the Natural History back on my shelf and reach for Vol. 5: The Mammals, but stop to look at the binding. Deep brown leather, a bit cracked and worn on the edges, gold lettering, decorative patterns engraved in the almost 3 inch wide spine. I run my fingers along the leather, pull the volume off my shelf, see the multi-colored swirling pattern on the edges of the closed pages, then open the book to see the marbled end pages inside the binding. As I hold the heavy volume, fifty years drop away, and I am standing in Granddaddy’s library…
Books line the walls, neatly arranged on built-in shelves up to the ceiling, bindings drawing me close to look, tempting me to run my finger over the soft, worn leather; titles promising knowledge and adventure, if only I could read Latin, Greek, and other ancient languages. Just touching the bindings fills me with a hunger to learn, to enter conversations long ago started by the people Granddaddy knows through their words, who have shaped him into the grandfather I know. I move slowly from one shelf to another, savoring the rich red, brown, black, and tan leather-bound books, some narrow, some three or more inches wide, a few with titles I read, most in Latin or some other language I can’t yet read. I want to learn the languages so I can join the conversations.
I am entranced by the books, but the reason I am here is Granddaddy, sitting in the corner in his armchair with the coarse, tan tweed upholstery with a singe mark on one arm, bookshelves on both sides and a small end table with his talking books beside his chair. He can’t see very well anymore and he doesn’t move so quickly these days, so after I use the wood and leather bellows to get the fire blazing brightly again in the small fireplace in the corner of his office, I bring him his pipe and a glass of water, then nestle into his lap, leaning my head against his chest, my cheek against his scratchy tweed jacket. Granddaddy wraps his strong arms and gentle hands around me, arms and hands that have split wood and stacked it into circular piles that made great forts for all of us grandchildren, that carefully planted hundreds of seedlings, that tirelessly pushed my siblings and me around in a wheelbarrow when we were smaller, and that have held thousands of books to read or to inspire others from. I breathe deeply, the scent of the library fire, of Granddaddy’s pipe, of a world of books stirring in me a longing for knowledge and eagerness to learn. I breathe out and nestle closer, listening to Granddaddy’s heart beating slow and steady, feel his arms strong and gentle around me, and relax in the knowledge that I am loved.
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