Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Atlases

Last weekend, I came across a thick, mint condition 1979 Reader's Digest World Atlas at a Mt. Tabor yard sale. The yard sale proprietress asked two bucks and suggested I deplume the thing page-by-page, country-by-country to use for stationary, or arts and crafts. I was appalled at the idea. Firstly, it was a lovely book. Secondly, it was published the year of my birth. Defacing a book is slightly easier for me than cutting the whiskers off a cat or kicking a puppy.

Today it was a yard sale off Burnside that caught my attention. This children's atlas had seen better days. The pages, or what was left of them, were stored in the cover but completely detached. The book's cover boards were held together with duck tape. I knew this meant, although it was almost sixty years old, that the book was worth zilch. This, I thought, is a book of maps I could use for stationary, for arts and crafts.

I asked the price.

The proprietress of this yard sale was a late-fifties Asian woman with a proper, stern look. She asked what I wanted it for to which I responded, "Stationary, maybe? Arts and crafts?" She looked pained. I said it was very interesting and she brightened up. "You're a teacher? Show this to your students?" I shook my head. Not a teacher. "How much?" I asked again, irritated that I was negotiating not only the price of the book, but its fate.

"Five dollars," she said. I started to put it back, ready to leave, and she touched my wrist. She explained that she was selling all her things, that she was moving to Hong Kong, to take care of her mother who was old and ill. This book, she said, is what her mother used to show her and her sister the world, and their place in it, when the family arrived in Portland from Hong Kong when she was little. I imagined her as a girl trying to reconcile the world by tracing the route from page 4, China and Hong Kong, to page 6, where Portland was circled in pencil on the United States map. And now in middle age she had to leave what had become her true home, Portland, to care for her mother who had never wanted to leave Hong Kong in the first place. So I paid the five dollars, said goodbye, and felt the weight of the broken book in my hand all the way home.

1 comment:

janet said...

Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh........ What a sweet story! Brought tears to my eyes! I hope that you assured her you would take care of her precious book!