The Responsibility of Closets

“It’s been my house a long time. You can do what you want.” Dad has taken to repeating this pair of sentences, nudging me forward in the difficult decisions brought on by the blank slate of redone floors and newly painted walls.

We both stare at the bookshelf. It is the focal point of the living room, built into the wall and accented with delicately swooping lines. Somehow it is more whimsical than anything else in this farm house built up in pieces from shack to home. The bookshelf marks where an old door once opened. An impractical upgrade of the intent neither he nor I know anything about. Except, it suited my mother.

“Books are mostly your mother’s. Definitely the thick ones. I liked short stories,” he adds.

We stand back and stare.

“We could donate them,” he continues.

I shake my head. I know from my work at the library that none of the books are in any condition to donate. They will be recycled or simply thrown. These tightly packed tones are a collection of publishing dates long past and yellowed, moldy pages. “No.”

“Maybe you’d be interested in reading them. They’re old but could be interesting titles.”

I shrug. “We could put them in the closet upstairs.”

“Which closet?”

“My closet on the north side.”

“I don’t want to do that to you.”

“What do you mean? There are already books in there. Your old books.”

He raises his eyebrows. My dad’s room became a family closet of sorts beyond his own extra piles of clothes and out of date VHS tapes. When he spoke of the disorder of the room, he mostly centered on a set of encyclopedias, as if he guarded them, a representation of parental initiative for his children’ future. But now, they impeded him from understanding his changed role in my brother’s life and mine.

I spend a Saturday moving two unused shelves and carrying the feathered paperbacks upstairs. Grocery bags and multiple trips. Between the eyebrow windows guaranteed never to breathe a cooling breeze into my bedroom, I kneel by the readjusted piles. My mind undoes the puzzle. My hands choose shapes and align the books three deep, pressed together. Safe and saved.

After the first shelf, my speed increases. My eyes narrow and clip and trip over titles I begin to set aside.

Carlos Castaneda

Aldo Leopold

Hebrew: Language/30 still marked with public library stickers in 1970s typeface.

Mayan cosmology.

Environmental appreciation.

Learning Hebrew.

My squinted face matches the north wall and windows. Eyes exist. They open. They don’t see.

How can I have made her choices without reading her books? Without even knowing her? I only know that to remove them from the house would be like ridding myself of her.

“You remind me of her sometimes,” Dad had said recently. “Like you laugh after you say something. Not an embarrassed laugh. Just a laugh. She used to do that. And, she was tough. She could intimidate people. You come by it naturally.”

“But I didn’t know her.”

“You knew her.”

“Barely.”

In the late afternoon, Dad and I stand over the cooling frozen pizza. “I made space for all the books. I moved the encyclopedias too. And the history books you showed me.”

“Those are out of date.”

“But your mother gave them to you. There were already others like I told you. I even have room for more.”

“Why?”

“It’s my turn.” To make the space in my closet. I don’t know her reasons for these selections, but I know mine.

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