My grandfather’s commonplace book

My mother and her sisters considered their father, my grandfather Hicks, as inscrutable as the Sphinx. They never could figure him out. If they could, they would realize there was really nothing to figure out. He was born in the first decade of the twentieth century, and he was a man of his time: soft-spoken, introverted, well-educated, highly intelligent, erudite, etc. As such, he rarely showed his feelings and didn’t talk to them as much as he did to my uncle, his only son.

About twenty years ago, I was visiting Mom, and after our usual greetings, she said, “I have to show you something.” She left the room and returned with a banker’s box. She explained that her father had given it to her. Inside the box were press clippings he had collected in his coaching days, mementos of events he had attended, pictures, that kind of stuff. She reached into the box and took out a thin, black leather-bound book, like a ledger. “You have to see this.” No doubt afraid that I would spill something on it, tear one of its pages, set it on fire, or write all over it with a Magic Marker (as I had, when I was a kid, to one of his other books), she held it on her lap and made me look over her shoulder.

From what I could see, the book was filled with quotations, aphorisms, passages from books he had read, general thoughts, and notes to himself, all in his measured penmanship. I didn’t get to read it that closely, so I have no idea exactly what was in it, but clearly Mom was impressed, because it was obvious that her father was a man of high intelligence and learning, and bemoaned the fact that she and her siblings were such “mutts.” She then closed the book, tucked it back into the banker’s box, and spirited it away, putting it wherever it was she put things that she didn’t want anybody getting their hands on. She had the secret to her father, and wasn’t about to let it slip out of her hands.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Over this weekend, I learned that a book like my grandfather’s ledger was a commonplace book. It’s nothing more than a place to record the types of things that my grandfather had. At one time, everyone kept them; they were invaluable study aids, a good place to jot down things the owner wanted to remember, a private repository of all of the things that mean something to the person keeping it. Up until then, I never knew anyone who had one of those, probably because it’s not the sort of thing you share with the world. Mom, Dad, and “Tex” (her second husband) didn’t keep one, at least not that I’m aware of, nor did anyone else in my family, and in seventeen years of private and public education no one ever mentioned it or encouraged us to keep one.

Damn. I would have liked to have thought of doing that. I mean, I’ve kept journals and notebooks of work-related information, but never considered having a notebook of just information that I wanted to carry through life with me.

Well, no time like the present. There’s no reason I have to keep a commonplace book using pen and paper, despite admonitions in articles I’ve read online that I “really should” (Julia Cameron also advises that “morning pages” should be written longhand; I use 750 Words and get just as much out of the exercise), so I’ve started a notebook in Evernote for the job. And all the quotes, affirmations, reading notes, basically anything that I want to capture and remember, will go in there. Who knows where this could lead?

Oh, a couple of other things:

After Mom died, we were cleaning out the house to sell it, and found the box. We had dinner with Hicks the next day, and I returned the box to him. He said, “I gave that box to your mother to get it out of my house. Was there anything in there you wanted?” So I went into the box to look for the book, and it wasn’t there. Mom had passed it on to one of her sisters. A few days later, we found a Marshall Field’s box with Etaba Doyle’s (Mom’s grandfather) stuff in it. I brought it home and it’s in a plastic box in my closet. If they want the stuff, I’ll trade them for the book.

My grandfather died on December 20, 2001, and all of the grandsons that could make it served as pallbearers. At the end of the funeral Mass, my uncle got up and told all of us, primarily his sisters, that in the conversations he had with his father, Hicks had talked a lot about his children and grandchildren, and you could tell that he was very proud of us and considered us, his family, his greatest accomplishment. He finished his talk with “And he wanted you to know, that even though he called us a bunch of lard-heads, that he loved us very much.” My cousins and I laughed like idiots at that one. None of us ever had any doubt. Like I said, there was nothing to figure out.

Do you keep a commonplace book? How long have you kept it?