Bookmarking Personal History
One of my goals this year is to read (to completion) 12 books. This number seems absurdly low for a girl who used to read that many books in one week on summer vacation, but it’s a realistic reentry into a space I haven’t occupied for a while. I still read a lot of words, but they are rarely in full-book format. So before catching a plane to Utah last week, I scanned one of our bookcases and grabbed a fresh book off the top shelf, the shelf with the invisible label, “Books I purchased years ago with the intent of reading but haven’t quite gotten around to yet.”
I’m not a huge fan of folding the corners of book pages to mark my place, although I will in a pinch. There’s something about protecting the integrity of the page that’s important to me. Instead, I prefer to hold my place another way, perhaps with a receipt, an unused tissue or even a light pencil marking. This is not because I don’t own a bookmark. We are a household of readers and writers, which invariably means there is a collection of underused bookmarks scattered throughout the house. I just can’t ever seem to find one when I need one.
Our recent move provided me with the opportunity to gather several of these shifty objects and consolidate them into a single drawer in the living room, so when I picked up the book from the adjacent shelf, I was able to reach down and score a bookmark, too. The one I selected (for no conscious reason) is a textured ivory sleeve, smooth paper with traces of dirt and coffee around the edges, decorated with what appear to be Japanese characters. Two frayed ribbons, one pink and one red, spray from the open top. The sleeve contains two heavyweight paper bookmarks, bordered in gray and decorated on the front with delicate tree branches and blossoms in muted shades of brown and pink. On the back of each bookmark is a lengthy collection of characters completely foreign to me: six to eight columns each containing up to 25 icons.
I have no idea what these bookmarks say, nor do I have any idea how I acquired them. I do know I’ve carried them around with me for years–decades, even–and they might date back to high school, perhaps a graduation gift? It’s a mystery I prefer to leave unsolved, as their mere existence makes me happy, a reminder that my journey as a writer started years ago as a reader, that my love of letters and words in all their forms transcends language.
There are several other bookmarks in the drawer, including a lacquered sliver of bamboo decorated with ribbons, beads and an Anais Nin quote (a gift from M). Next to that are two metal sticks topped with green ribbons, identical except for the shade of green, and engraved with a George Eliot quote (one purchased for myself years ago in Boston, the other a gift to M more recently).
There is also another bookmark of mysterious origin, at least regarding part of its story. Looped around two ends of a slightly-frayed coral and gold ribbon are two metal objects, one a slatted page marker and the other a round charm depicting the S.S. Stavangerfjord. The ship’s name is also engraved in cursive script on the pointed marker.
I’m not sure exactly how this bookmark came into my possession, but I feel an immense responsibility to be its caretaker. My mother’s family is partly of Swedish descent, and more than 25 years ago, when my maternal grandfather’s aunt passed away, I was gifted her small sewing kit. At the time, in the late 1980s, embroidery thread friendship bracelets were all the rage, so passing on a collection of multi-colored string to the only tween girl in the family made sense. It’s probable the bookmark was tucked somewhere in that floral-and-wicker basket, which I still have and whose contents are worth exploring another day, but I can’t be sure. Too much time has passed, and my 12-year-old self was not as interested in travel lore and literary ghosts as I am today.
I’ve researched what history I can find on the S.S. Stavangerfjord, an ocean liner that carried passengers from Norway to the United States from 1918 to 1963. (It was briefly commandeered by the Germans, from 1940-1945, and used for troop transport before being returned to Norwegian American Lines.) Its main destination in North America was New York, although it often stopped in Nova Scotia en route from Europe. I’ve located passenger manifests from a few of its trans-Atlantic crossings, hoping to find clues to my ancestral roots. So far I’ve come up empty, but I’m still fascinated by the story.
So in addition to reading 12 new books this year, I’ll also continue to research the S.S. Stavangerfjord, hoping to find the link between the mysterious bookmark and me, both of us new immigrants to the Sonoran Desert, thousands of miles from home. –J.