Foyer > Writing > The Paper Trail

April 4, 1999

The Paper Trail

In my family's summer house in Billingsford, Vermont there are many books. In fact I've gone though the house in my mind and I believe I can say there is at least one bookshelf in every single room. I include the upstairs bathroom. The downstairs bathroom only has a pile of books. Give it time though, there's certainly room for a bookshelf in there and I'm sure it will get one. The woodshed may be an exception, but there are a lot of manuals out there and it wouldn't surprise me to run across a novel or two. Most rooms have several bookshelves. Even the upstairs hallway has a shelf of books in it. This bookshelf contains books written by various relatives of mine. I haven't read all of them, I'm sorry to say, but I have read a lot of them.
I never knew either of my grandfathers and only one grandmother and these books have taught me quite a bit about my relatives. One book is called The Incurable Romantic. It was written by my paternal grandfather, Roderick Peattie. It's about traveling in Europe with his family. There was Margaret (my grandmother) his son, Roderick Elia (my father) and his daughter (my aunt Anne). Then there was also a younger son, Michael. Michael is still alive and lives in California. I met him once when I was a child and then again the summer before last.

The Incurable Romantic is about buying the house in Billingsford too. Margaret and Roderick bought the house in 1929. It is a very old farmhouse and had been abandoned for fifteen years when they bought it. There are photographs in the book. Some are of their travels and some of the house, and of course quite a lot of the photographs are of them.
I may have met my Aunt Anne when I was very young but if so I don't remember her. There is however, a semi racy novel that is kept out in what we call the loft. This well thumbed paperback is called Desire Island and is purportedly about my Aunt Anne, written by one of her gentleman friends. It takes place on Fire Island in the forties and is not a very flattering picture of her. The poster-style cover shows a busty woman in a white halter top cocktail dress lolling against up against a palm tree with her arm up over her forehead.

Traditionally the loft has always been the boys room, mainly I think because it has a large sliding window at just the right height to pee out of. When I was a child there was a large bare spot under the window where the grass never grew. It houses an old pump organ on which we used to make scary sound effects when we were kids during games of Murder In The Dark at night. It also houses the family costume collection, which is varied and vast, and more books.
Also in the "family shelf" in the steep ceilinged upstairs hallway are a series of novels written by Louise Redfield Peattie, my maternal great aunt. They are sort of arty, breathless, potboilers and I devoured them when I was an adolescent. However she was looked down on as a writer in the family. It was said rather sneeringly of her that she wrote for Reader's Digest. I guess that put her beyond the pale. Her books are there in the shelf though, and I read them all. One of her novels of which I am very fond is called American Acres. She reportedly used her family as a model in it and I believe they weren't happy about it.

All the books in the house tell me things about my family. There are children's books that Grandma Margaret (whom I never knew) used to read to my father and Anne and Michael when they were children, including a collection of German nursery rhymes that my mother used to read to us. Then there are my father's collection of Nevil Shutes. My father was a big Nevil Shute fan and had every single one. He wrote his name on the fly leaves in a very distinctive spidery printing, written with his architectural drawing pen: Roderick Elia Peattie. I read all of these too. My father died when I was quite young and reading his favorite books made me feel closer to him.
One day about ten years ago I went upstairs to my older sister's room to look for something to read. It was in early July and hot, but the house is always cool inside. It always smells a little musty too. It may be because it is shut up all winter, but it may also be the huge numbers of aging books in the house which gives it its distinctive smell. My sister's room is on the south side of the house and has one window which looks out over the perennial garden far below and a little low window which looks out over the slate roof of the downstairs bathroom. There is a long two shelf bookshelf that runs along the wall under the garden window. Then there is another four shelf bookshelf painted blue. At that time the room had blue and white striped floral wallpaper, water stained in spots. The floor has been painted white as long as I can remember and there is a small, wooden, four poster bed with large round balls on the top of the posts, these feel always slightly greasy from so many hands running over them. The bed also has the hardest and lumpiest mattress in the house. The bed is of an age where the mattress is smaller than a full and we have never been able to find a mattress to fit it. The mattress is as hard and lumpy as a beach after you've slept on it all night but my sister never complains about it. She just winds herself around the lumps.

I picked out one of my father's Nevil Shute's to read, The Long Captivity. I went down the steep, narrow stairs to the living room and settled down on the couch. As I opened the book a scrap of paper fell out. It was a grocery list that my father had written out in his black spidery printing. Milk, eggs, light bulbs... I can't remember what else was on it. But there in my hand was a grocery list my long dead father had written one summer day many years before. He probably stuck it in there as a bookmark and then got to the store and couldn't remember what he was supposed to buy.
Holding the list I remembered my father, on Saturday mornings, taking my younger sister and I into the office of the architectural firm where he worked. This was in Brooklyn, New York, where we lived until I was seven. We would scoot up and down the hallway on the wheeled office chairs and whirl around and around on them. Then my father would unroll long sheets of drafting paper on the floor and give us piles of pens and colored pencils and Magic Markers to draw with. The Magic Markers I remember from my childhood had a wonderful smell. The black ones smelled the most. I can't describe the smell, it was probably benzine or something equally toxic. Nobody who has ever smelled it can ever forget it, the Magic Markers these days don't smell nearly as good
Most of my relatives, aside from my mother's immediate family, I have never met and many are dead now. But I can know them through the books and papers they have left behind them, jammed into bookshelves all over that big old house. They have left me a paper trail.