As I grow older, more and more it is the mystery of life that sustains me.
I bought a book the other day. Technically, it is a rare book — one of a kind, in fact.
But I doubt that it is of value to anyone but me.
It’s a review copy of Thomas Wolfe’s first posthumous novel, “The Web and the Rock.” It was sent to Lewis Gannett, who wrote a long-running book review column for The New York Herald Tribune.
Now, both Wolfe and Gannett are almost forgotten. In their day, though, they were prominent men.
In the late 1920s and into the 1930s, Wolfe was a peer of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Critics heralded him as the great American novelist. But he died young, more than 20 years before I was born, and time moved on.
Gannett wrote a daily book review column. His words of praise or condemnation could make or break a writer. But the paper for which he worked is now long gone.
But it’s not the fact that both men once were powerful figures that made the book appealing to me.
Long, long ago, Thomas Wolfe’s books persuaded me that I could be a writer. Wolfe told autobiographical tales about a young man from an often-overlooked piece of America who dreamed of catching the stuff of life in the snare of language. When I was a college student, that spoke to me.
His inspiration put me on the path to the life I’ve led.
Many of my wife’s fondest childhood memories take place in northwest Connecticut, where her family lived. It was a tightknit community, the kind of place where people gathered for festive holiday parties.
A kindly woman with a creative bent was a neighbor. She designed distinctive little Christmas ornaments for neighborhood families and children.
The woman was a talented artist. Several of her works, all of them lovely pieces, depicting life in that little community hang on the walls of our home today.
The woman’s name was Ruth Gannett. She was the wife and then the widow of Lewis Gannett.
My wife does not recall Lewis Gannett well. He died around the time she started school.
But she does remember playing with other children at the Gannett home. And, when she looks at the pictures on our walls, she thinks of where and how she grew up, a gift from the Gannetts to her.
And to us.
My wife spent her college years at Duke University. When I was a senior, the college I attended — the college where I now teach — was kind enough to send me to North Carolina, where Wolfe grew up and attended school, to do research for an honors thesis that included him.
I stayed at a shabby motel in Durham. One day, I opted to walk around the Duke campus and have lunch in the student union building.
My wife and I didn’t meet until we both were in our mid-30s. We didn’t marry until we were in our late 30s.
But these days she and I sometimes wonder when we sit by the fire, now a happy old married couple, whether we passed each other on the Duke campus that day, unaware of how our lives would entwine.
And I think often about the chain of events that brought a boy from the Midwest and a girl from the Northeast together — and about the strange ways an almost forgotten American novelist and a now obscure book reviewer and his talented artist wife touched the lives of that boy who became a husband and father and that girl who became a wife and mother.
The book I just bought is old, kind of tattered and worn around the edges.
A bit like its new owner.
Even so, the book is a treasure.
In this season of gratitude, it reminds me of the myriad moments and forces that brought me to these days, which I spend surrounded by a wife and two children I love and whose lives I value more than my own.
I think of how the lives of two writers, now forgotten, intersected with mine and with those I hold most dear.
Yes, as I grow older, it is the mystery of life that sustains me.