The following passages are excerpted from the memoir My Life in Paper, forthcoming in November from Temple University Press.
BABY BOOKS. SCRAPBOOKS. PAPER BAGS. Paper games. Paper doilies. Paper news. Paper letters. Blueprints. Sewing patterns. Sheet music. Diaries. Postcards. Mortgages. Report cards. Instructions. Résumés. Syllabi. Certificates of birth and certificates of death. Dollar bills and checks and luminaries. File folders. Dictionaries. Entire libraries. The Coptic-stitched, the perfect-bound, the stabbed and sewn, the handmade with the garden flowers. The modest, essential, ubiquitous, fragile. The gifts we wrap with the paper made for wrapping.
Our lives with paper.
February is white as a sanatorium, and only the violas bloom from their paper bag on the sill, knocking each other out in a patch of tenderized sunlight.
I settle the pain in my head by remembering the butterfly I once drew all the one day and then the next, until its wings were a stained-glass firmament and its antennae fuzzed the way real antennae do. Not being in any way blessed, the butterfly rose, in my estimation, to art, to my first best exercise in conceit and self-promotion, so much so that wherever I went for a week, two weeks, I carted the winged creature and explained myself through it.
Funny how the barest trace of it remains these fifty-odd years on, the chiaroscuro of those wings, launched even now into the still white hull of winter.
It was our proper fresh start, our next best. No scraps, yet, on the floor. No missing colors. Anything imaginable infinitely possible with the aid of blunt-force scissors, wells of watercolor, glue slime, Magic Markers, crayons, tape. Our uncles bought it at the drugstore. Our neighbors had an extra stash. Our teachers in their low, comfortable heels or slightly stained neckties disappeared into the supply closet and then came back. Voilà:
A virgin pad of construction paper.
Do with it what we may. Hatch the paper chains, the butterfly, the partner history project, the cone we pressed to our lips like a bullhorn to win the argument with our sister. Construction paper was the moment of our moments, destined to fade, tear, buckle, to become, in the words of art conservator Joan Irving, its own “history of impermanence.”
And yet, the nineteenth-century factories and educators that introduced this wood-chip pulp product into kindergarten classrooms had something more permanent in mind—the teaching of color theory, for example, and the happy instructions of “gifts,” a concept that had been put forth by the German Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), a nineteenth-century educational reformer who believed that play lies at the heart of learning, and what is play if not (at least in part) cutting, punching, folding, weaving, and stitching paper? By the late nineteenth century, paper manufacturers were adapting their machinery to meet the demand, and soon such artists as the Siberian-born, New York City transplant Abraham Walkowitz (1878–1965) were playing with the paper, too, not concerning themselves with the problems of impermanence that art conservators like Irving would one day face.
We have our own problems, of course, with impermanence. With the oceanic life poster that, all these years later, represents the deep of the sea as a sepia stain. With the cotton-ball accented cloudscapes that have faded to gray. With the cards we made for our mothers all those years ago, no longer exuberant in their soft and placid pinks, no longer winning her attention. We launch our paper wings in memory now. We steal our memory from the fade.
In the aftermath of my father’s death, I wanted only quiet. I chased sanctuary through shadows. I walked the vanishing miles. I lay awake in the midnight hours, but even then, a nearby fox would call out for love, or a deer would high-step through fallen leaves, or a squirrel would bumble in the gutter.
I didn’t mind the birds of dawn, but I minded the eradications of tree surgeons—the carburetor rage of their chainsaws, the thonk of severed limbs hitting the ground. I minded the boot of the boy who smashed the trash bins until they crashed—spilling a bell choir of bottles. I minded the neighborhood girls’ pissing accusations—You’re such a thief, you’re such a liar, you stole my phone, you’re such a liar. I minded the keel of the news and the yawp of the sun. I minded the pretension of narrative, words upon words—how, even when no one was near or no one was speaking, there was a terrible howl at my ear. Worse than consonants. Louder than vowels.
I had been reading Virginia Woolf before my father died, before I rushed to him as his final storm set in, the despair of his lungs in their drowning. Turning her pages. I had been reading Virginia, also Leonard. The long swaying arms of the searchlights over their street called Paradise, in their England, 1917. The clattering machinery of the German Gotha bombers and the ascending cries of the sirens and the putter of the Royal Naval Air Service squadrons and the puff-pop of the smoke where the bombs had succeeded. A letter, sent by Virginia, to her friend Violet Dickinson, bearing news: She and Leonard have bought a tabletop letterpress from the Excelsior Printing Supply Co. They are about to hand-build books of their own. Manage the text, command the art, tighten the bindings. Although the letterpress is broken when it arrives, and there are but a scant sixteen pages of how-tos to get them through the early days. They eye the letters in reverse (Caslon), take the quoin and composing stick into their hands, and decide: Virginia will set the type and bind the pages, Leonard will ink and pull. It will unfold in the dining room of the house where they live, a place called Hogarth.
Play, Leonard will one day say of the thing, sufficiently absorbing. Calming the noises inside Virginia’s head.
Type in her composing stick.
Ink on her fingers.
A thin red thread in the eye of her needle.
In the aftermath of my father’s death, I bought paper, thread, acrylic paints. Needles, brayers, buttons. Instructions I discovered I could not follow on the form and beautification of blank journals. I awled and bone folded. Knotted and snipped. I made my mistakes at the kitchen table and beside the sink, beneath bare bulbs and in swaths of sun, in the early mornings when I would wake to the fox that lived by the shatter of the moon and was bereft with love. I was not setting lines, not administering hyphens, not placing Caslon between margins. Still, I was sufficiently absorbed: color, paper, knots; ghost prints and ephemera. There was stain on my clothes and waxed linen in my needles. My hands were cracked and raw.
When story returns after story quits, it arrives in fits and fragments, rushes west, flusters east, is soft, invincible fury. I punched and patterned, tore and blended, stole flowers from the garden to preserve them. Is it like this, then, or could this be true—the hands matriculating the rage, arting the heart, deposing meaning?
Red approximating blue.
An amateur obsessive.
Before my father died, when he already wasn’t well, I grew frustrated with Virginia. I was reading her fiction by then, her To the Lighthouse. I’d sit in my bed, early in the day, and hear myself yak back at her—cut the vines of her sentences, her looping plentitudes, her times passing. I’d find an easier novel and abandon Virginia, and then I would return. Float into her sea and ride: billows and breakers, tide and tug, the nether and the offing. I’d yield. It was the only way I knew to read Virginia, although sometimes, whirlpooled into the length of a single Virginia sentence, I’d find that I was drowning. That I could not understand Virginia.
And yet: On the eve of Covid-19, my father older than he’d ever been, my father in the early phase of passing, I went to the Kislak to visit Virginia. To hold what she’d made with her hands in my hands. To reckon with what remains when those we battle with, and love, go missing. I’d wait inside that clean box of that reading room for Virginia’s letterpress work to be retrieved. At a long table before an assembly of soft supports that hold the archived and retrieved in a non-spine-breaking V, she came.
Her thick and desiccated pages.
Her assertions of ink.
Her chipped and fraying bindings.
Her nether and her offing.
I held what she’d made with her hands in my hands. I pretended permanence.
We go to books for solace, and for proof, to begin again at the beginning. Handmade books, first editions, inky manuscripts, especially. They carry time forward on their own electric currents. They keep what we can’t keep. They counterweight the dying.
That crease in the top corner.
The infuriating riddle.
Hold the old book in your hand, and you are holding something living.
A gift, but from whom? My mother? Would she have wanted this for me—more words? In the marrow of my imagination, on the pages of my stories, in the gutter in between our lives? Here, for you, these words.
My husband? Straining through remembering to see it, I can’t see it. Although his arms are strong, and it would have been easy for him to carry so many words. To haul them around. To leave them for me so that he could leave them behind. What use has he ever had for words?
A through M.
N through Z.
Me, then. I gave myself these on historical principles words, these 7.5 million words, these 13.5 pounds of words, this 1993 edition. The liquids and the nasals. The † preceding the obsoletes, the bold italics shouting foreign, the vowel diagrams representing the position and degree of raising the tongue in articulating the sound, the birth dates and the bells tolled for words, and then—inevitable?—the crash of them to the floor from the shelves in the black business of the night.
In the pool of morning sun, they were a devastated splay of words.
I picked them up. I adjusted their spines. I straightened their jackets, their slick and now permanently battered outerwear. I smoothed the mess within, the small crests rippling the pages, so thin. I put it all to rest—A through M and N through Z—in one corner of the floor, stacking the volumes on their sides, so that they became a two-story house of words with thumb-index windows, six inches tall, three inches per story. Spiders moved in with their web filigrees. Breezes riffled overhead. Dust grayed the gloss. Time took its time in the house of words.
Across the room from the house of words, I tapped my keyboard, searched my screen. I hunted my plosives, fricatives, and affricates with digital passivity. My differentiated homonyms. My variant spellings. No heavy lift required. No crouching in the shadows. No splitting of index-finger skin on the thin, thin pages of the Shorter Oxford. The words I found and used were immaterial. They were tap and dot and vapor words.
It must have been my gift to myself. It could not have been my mother. Straining through remembering to see it, I see it. See me in a velvet gown. (Aubergine.) See me on a night when I have been noticed for my words. At the door to the ceremony, I wait. I will be there, my mother has said. She does not come, she never comes, I’m waiting.
In time, it was as if there were no words in the house of words. As if the house of words had become a construction, a kind of furniture, those 6 inches tall, those 9 inches wide, those 11.25 inches long. The house of words was lifted from the floor, carried into new rooms, opened and shut and arranged. It stowed treasure. It flower pressed. It lifted the Zoom Room laptop to acceptable heights. Sometimes just the A through M. Sometimes, also, the N through Z.
I slipped spray roses in among the linnet, which sing. Pale blue hydrangeas beneath the drab, muddy of dunducketty. Nandina beside the carob, that edible horn-shaped fleshy seedpod of an evergreen leguminous tree. I made paper out of books I’d shredded and blendered and lintered and deckled, and I left that paper to dry beneath the reliable weight of the Shorter Oxford. Whenever two things had to be fused
I knew to trust the house of words.
The battered, resined, cobwebbed, misted Shorter Oxford fixing everything.
I will be there, she had said, and I stood waiting, I am waiting.
The Shorter Oxford begins with the letter A, a, and does not leave the letter to itself until it has been exhausted.
It hid in the living room hutch, third drawer down. Not the Bloomingdale’s tie box, not the Bloomingdale’s glove box, but the Bloomingdale’s shirt box, still with its transparent tissue. The top is checkerboard pearly gray and white, and the word Bloomingdale’s is lowercased in a bulbous font, just this side of modern. Two brothers launched the “ladies notion” store in 1861. It was subsumed, during the Depression, by Federated. By the time my father left his malodorous job at an oil refinery for a suit-and-tie career and we’d moved to the last house our family would call home, Bloomingdale’s had won my mother’s heart.
Beneath the tree at Christmas, it was Bloomingdale’s, all manner of checkerboard boxes.
In the years following my mother’s death, it was still Bloomingdale’s—the old
boxes emptied of their original purpose and redeployed as provisional cardboard treasure chests. A collection of beads in one. A quick clutch of letters in another. Ribbons. Artifactual miscellany. The gifts themselves had been long dispersed—worn out, faded, tattered. The boxes were the thing.
I was helping my father pack and stage the last house for sale when I found this one. I slipped the lid and folded the thin tissue back. Caught my breath. Stood. Left the amber-lamped living room for the white-bulbed family room where my father sat sifting, sorting, packing—some kind of undercover operation from which I had been strictly banned.
I found this box, I said. Can I have it?
Tired, disgruntled, overwhelmed by the marathon that moving had become, my father glared. Breathing asthmatically, he hunched, impatiently shrugged. I took that as permission. I carried the shirt box to the front door and later drove it home.
I had thought that box would tell me stories my mother had not, that it would clatter bridges across our chasms and reinvent the way I loved her. But the stuff in the box that my mother had buried in the third drawer of the hutch, inside squares of wrapping paper and folds of tasseled tablecloths, had not been, I’d come to understand, the original property of my mother. Its contents were not of her curation. The stuff of the box had come, instead, by way of my mother’s brother’s house, my prized and beloved uncle. For he’d done what we’d all done with our Bloomingdale’s Christmases—removed the gift and repurposed the box as a vehicle of safekeeping. Stashed his discontinuous narrative inside a cardboard coffin.
Square, cracked, bent, black-and-white photographs, their corners pinhole-punched. John Bartram High School report cards: my mother’s. A notarized deed for the Mount Moriah Cemetery plot. A 1922 certificate of naturalization for Joseph D’Imperio—“51 years old, five feet six inches tall; color: white; complexion: dark; eyes: brown; hair: gray; visible distinguishing marks: none.” The passaporto, 1870, of Guiseppe D’Imperio of Foggia, Italy, everything written in pencil. An agreement of sale for the house at 6840 Guyer Street in southwest Philadelphia, made “on the 13th day of June AD 1942, with Margaret D’Imperio, wife of Daniel D’Imperio (6841 Guyer St).” My grandmother. My grandfather. My mother and my uncle’s parents. Making their big move to an identical rowhouse across their southwest Philadelphia rowhouse street, where my uncle and my mother would—on a small square of open floor—dance the Charleston. Where my grandmother, in the tiny kitchen, would roast her ham, and where, upstairs, in her white bed in her darkened room, she would pass her final days, looking out the front window toward the house they had abandoned.
In his home by the sea, into this Bloomingdale’s box, my uncle stashed his story. This was the house that we were strictly not to visit, except for the one time that we did. Stay close, my uncle had said on that day, as we timorously and curiously opened the door and stepped into a room of audacious colors and fragile antiques, through the narrow, undecorated kitchen, through to the backyard plot with its single, brand-new tree. Stay near. Look at only what I show you. Do not climb the steps to go to the secret upstairs inside my secret house.
My uncle’s evidence had been delivered to my mother at some unknown point after his death. The photos, the proofs of bloodlines, the inherited and kept, the corroboration of choices, preference, chance. And now, as well, and of course posthumous, confirmations of and attestations to my uncle’s life and death.
The death certificate and its naked facts: “no surviving spouse,” “self-employed,” “writer,” “cardio-respiratory failure,” “lethal cardiac arrhythmia.”
The obituary: He was an antiques expert, he was an author, he appeared on the Today show, he was in possession of antique valentines, he had been too busy, he had been quoted saying, for “a special valentine of his own.” Alice Faye, he had said, was the last love of his life.
The obituary folded so that it would look like trash—yellowed newsprint advertisements on its front-facing back, sloppy creases—as if whoever had clipped it had read it just once and then rushed it into camouflage, buried the lie, shoved it into the keepsake box: Alice Faye. The last love of my life. Crushing the tissue paper. Slamming the checkerboard lid shut. Climbing down the stairs in the split-level house with the single tree in the backyard—the first room vivid, the kitchen so pale—where he had lived, for all those years, beside my uncle, where he had been hiding in the upstairs room on the day we came to visit.
He drove to the post office.
He mailed that box.
It is full of many things and holds few answers.
The trade is not a highly skilled one; neither does it, as we shall find, make any special demand upon the strength or nervous energy of the worker. A girl who is neat and quick-fingered can learn the beginning processes more readily, and be advanced to better qualities of work, than a slow-moving girl, or one who is untidy and slovenly.
This from a 1913 pamphlet titled “Occupations for Philadelphia Girls,” prepared by the Consumers’ League of Eastern Pennsylvania, which describes, with eerie precision, the labor opportunities for girls considering employment within the paper-box-making industry in Philadelphia.
The writers of the pamphlet purportedly visited all sixty “bonafide” paper-box factories in operation in the city at that time. They describe the workdays, typically beginning at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 6:00 p.m., of those “learners, coverers, corner stayers, and hand workers” who would bend and turn scored cardboard or run the covering machines or walk, at day’s end, across floors fluttered with scrap paper toward facilities for “tidying up.” Weekly wages for girls working in Philadelphia’s paper-box factories ranged from $7.51 through $8.86, according to the pamphlet writer, and the best firms offered half holidays on Saturdays.
By the time my mother was buying all those Bloomingdale’s boxes, paper-box manufacturing had become a full-scale industrial thing. Still, the box, with its three-dimensions and four neat corners, its reliable tucks and folds, its crispy tissue-papered linings, retains its mystery among secret keepers. A choose-your-ending narrative. A history unfolding.
Losing my religion. Not finding myself in that space where I was raised. A Methodist first, and then a Presbyterian, and always a Christian at Christmas.
It’s not that I don’t believe in God. It’s that I have a hard time talking about it all, accepting religion as the profit-loss of tithing, the methodology of institutions, the endless fracture, even the cliques that frazzle the surface of the fellowship hour.
But I find God in the morning skies that I watch through my bedroom window—never the same light and cloud show, always proof of the ingenious. I find God in the faces of those I love, in the smell of true vanilla, in the giant turtle that once appeared in my yard, as if it had adventured here from distant islands only to waken me to wonder. I find God in the red-tailed hawk that sometimes sits for hours on the high branch of the neighbor’s lightning-zipped tree, sentinel of the neighborhood, wildlife for the suburban numb. I find God in the song of rain and in the psalm of an afternoon sleep and in the memories I keep—a brother’s oboe, a father’s piano, the sound of a mother’s sewing Singer.
And I find God in the cold dark of Christmas Eve, in the linear extension of curbside luminaries, street after street, gesturing peace. There will be gifts, but modest ones. There will be meals—my beautiful son, my beautiful husband, my gratitude at our small table. But in the flicker on the streets, in the yield of neighbor toward stranger, in the possibility of a quiet binding, I find my certain peace.
There has been a decree, an imperial demand. Joseph must see where he’s going. His espoused wife is on a donkey. A godly child is on the way. The “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is in the distance, and it could be any day now, any minute, and the stars are bright, but still—light their journey. Place the live lanterns at their feet, down the road, down the road, up the road: this way.
A story. A tradition transplanted from distant cultures and rising up from the Spanish villages along the Rio Grande. Further adapted. Further spread. Luminary is an evolved word. It is Old French, and it is Late Latin. It is “lamp, light-giver, source of light” and “light, torch, lamp, heavenly body.”
It is also, according to historians of the tradition, not always the right word for the paper bags we fill with sand so that we might safely plant our candles so that we might safely spark our flames, one bag after the other in the dark. The proper word, in some parts of our world, would be farolito, but here, outside Philadelphia, where I live, luminary persists. The candles burn toward midnight. The flames lose wick and wax. The light, when no one is watching, snuffs out. Remembering remains.
At the start of the making of an overhand knot, you hold both ends of the thread in one palm.
In the proper tying of a proper square knot, nothing comes undone.
But the kettle stitch is a mere half hitch, and so it is a danger. It could fail, or you could fail it.
Love is like that.
Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2023 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved.
Beth Kephart is the author of nearly forty books in multiple genres, a teacher, and a book artist. My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera is forthcoming from Temple University Press. More at bethkephartbooks.com and bind-arts.com.