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GOODNIGHT, IRENE
August 29, 2011
 
How lovely: just as I was preparing to grill -- by candlelight-- the two pieces of salmon I had snatched from the freezer, closing its door hastily so as not to raise the temperature in there any more than I had to, the lights in the house came back on. We were prepared to go all week without electrical power, but we didn't even make the 24-hour mark. This might be because we are on the road to the hospital, thus riding its coattails in the power company's triage of who should get turned on first.

Things did not go as well in the basement of the new house: water rushed in, more than a foot of it, and it got my professional library. I feel unexpectedly peaceful about this, though, having just lived through the disposition of Q's enormous one to graduate students in the Rutgers English department. They were all grateful for the windfall, penniless as they are. And I can be grateful, too, in a different way: mine are gone. No child of mine will ever have to tiptoe around my feelings of attachment to my books. Irene took care of them as thoroughly as one of those redo-your-house teams on reality TV sweeps through your home and purges it of everything.

Books about English constitutional history, from back when I thought I might want to be a lawyer. My father's Bible commentaries, with marginal notes in his wonderful hand. The huge Bartlett's from which I fished quotations upon which to muse for my first year-long book of daily meditations -- after I finished it, I swore I'd never do another, and proceeded to write six more. My many-volumned Interpreter's Bible. My concordance and my thesaurus. My Norton anthologies. Half a dozen prayer books and hymnals. More. Much more.

My master's thesis was in there -- I found it with the sodden manuscript of my first book. They lay together on the sidewalk, dirty water oozing from their spines. A manila envelope of old book contracts. Scores of letters from readers. I found my father's army discharge papers. It's probably okay to dispose of them now: he won't be called up, having been dead for twenty years. Nor will my grandmother be needing her certificate of competency to teach second grade in Yakima, Washington, where she went after she fled Minnesota in 1911 to avoid marrying my grandfather. In a most un-Scandinavian burst of romantic initiative, though, he went after her and brought her back to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. They settled down next to one of them and were, I am told, very happy.

I probably shouldn't have looked at anything I found. Probably should have chucked it without a backward glance. But soon I had festooned the couch with faded photographs drying flat, pictures my father took in Japan after the war, of my parents, my brothers, my grandparents, me as a little girl. Soon salvageable books, few in number, stood upright on the bookshelf, trying to dry out. Maybe they will. Maybe not.

All is far from lost. The sudden stripping away of my possessions joins me in a small way to people whose losses are so much larger: to refugees, the civilian victims of wars, the victims of floods more lethal than ours. I have lost some, but they have lost it all. I can get more books if I wish. Their future capacity to recoup their losses is less certain. Something precious can be wrested from us in a moment, wrested even from me, whose privilege by mere accident of birth insulates me from so much.

Blessings on the books. I no longer have them, but I still know them. I still benefit from having read them. I still remember what each one meant, what it was to prepare for life as priest and writer, how they partnered me in that preparation and the practice it inaugurated. They made me. May they rest in peace.

+

Goodnight, Irene


Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I'll see you in my dreams.


Last saturday night I got married
Me and my love settled down
Now me and my love are parted
I'm gonna take another stroll downtown

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I'll see you in my dreams

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump In the river and drown

Irene goodnight, Irene good night
Good night Irene, good night Irene
I'll see you in my dreams

Ramblin' stop your gamblin'
Stop stayin' out late at night
Go home to your wife and your family
Sit down by the fireside bright

Irene goodnight, Irene good night
Good night Irene, good night Irene
I'll see you in my dreams

Irene goodnight, Irene good night
Good night Irene, good night Irene
I'll see you in my dreams.

-- Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter, 1908
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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