For someone who doesn’t particularly believe in the thing, I own an inordinate number of bibles. I just counted six on my bookshelf downstairs, and I’m pretty sure at least two or three made it into a recent “Donate” pile.
Two of them are student bibles, the non-KJVs that are actually readable. I used those back before I was a heathen, or now when I want to look something up. The rest have some sentimental value. There is the one my grandparents got me when I was “saved” (we went to a Southern Baptist Church where the moment when my soul was no longer doomed for eternal damnation was really a big deal). That one has my name engraved on the cover in gold and still looks brand new…which probably says something about my current spiritual status.
A couple of my bibles belonged to my Papaw. They’re big and leather-bound and falling apart because he actually read them. And since my Papaw was the nearest thing to God I knew as a kid, there’s a certain symmetry in my hanging onto them as an adult. I know now that he was just a man, with all the attendant complications and flaws that accompany folks of the human persuasion, but he loved me unconditionally and served as my soft place to fall until the day he died, and so he remains my reference point for divinity. I think his bibles might have been his soft place to fall, so, irrational as it is, my keeping them makes me feel like he’s still around for me.
The one that struck an unexpected chord with me recently, however, and the one which prompted this entry, was not my Papaw’s. It was my dad’s. For those who don’t know, my dad passed away a couple of years ago (he and my mom divorced when I was a baby), and like the human condition itself, our relationship was both complicated and flawed. He was a good man, though, at his core, and if my Papaw remains my reference point for divinity, my dad will forever be my reference point for unrealized potential and promise. And he pressed that promise between the pages of his bible.
I won’t get into the details of his tragic life and death, but it is enough to know that they were tragic. He was bright and talented and troubled and, like my Papaw, he loved unconditionally and completely. The bible that I inherited from him is a sparse testament to all of these.
It’s an unwieldy thing, the book itself. One of those heirloom bibles that is meant to serve as a repository for family record rather than a thing to read. Its front cover reveals that it was a wedding gift, given way back in 1976. In it, he told of his siblings, including his beloved little brother Larry, who died too soon–at the age of eleven–in 1970. My dad was fourteen at the time. I think my young, unknown uncle’s death set in motion the events that would ultimately lead to Dad’s own untimely end. Dad’s entry in the bible of his little brother’s birth and death, under the stark heading “Deaths,” was written in large, uneven letters. In marker, rather than ink, as though he wanted the record of his brother to seep into the pages more completely, unfading and unerasable.
My own birth is in there, too. It was likely entered sometime later, since he got the year wrong, but it’s there, in the same untidy scrawl that immortalized his brother. With it, scattered amidst the pages, are pictures of me. A photo he took, a newspaper clipping from an article about my eighth-grade drama team. He didn’t see me often, but he kept watch, recording my various moments of being and doing in his sacred book.
What struck me most, however, weren’t the images of me, however touched I was to find them. No, it was evidence of his own being and doing, of his hoping and searching and remembering, that made my chest ache and my fingers turn to keys with a need to keep my own record. It was the pictures from his baptism, looking young and nervous. An editorial asking simply, “Can I go to Heaven?”. A note from a preacher thanking him for his gift, which I’m sure he couldn’t really afford. The tabbed pages and highlighted passages that spoke of love and heart and peace and hope.
And, finally, amidst all this paper and ink were the broken remains of a laurel leaf, a perfectly pressed carnation, and a crumbling rose. Mementos, no doubt, of happier times. Of unrealized potential. Of promises, withered and broken. Pieces of his life that reflect all too accurately the man he was and the life he led.
I will keep Dad’s bible with a full and heavy heart. I might even continue the family tree and insert my own mementos into its pages. I think he’d like that. My son, Ephraim, will inherit the book someday and, while he might doubt the sacredness of the book itself, he will hopefully understand that between its faded leather cover lies a sacredness of another sort. It is a place where love was poured, where troubles and hopes alike were pressed into the pages as surely as the carnation and the rose. Where family was remembered and preserved and held, as hallowed and soul-feeding as the text was ever meant to be.
But I will not add any more flowers to the book–their inevitable darkening and decay too perfect a symbol for the tragic side of life. I’ll focus on the hope, and hope that my inclusions reflect my life back to my son someday as poignantly as my father’s do to me.