Monday, July 21, 2008

Hamlet's Dresser by Bob Smith

A friend of mine loaned me this book and it's taken over a year for me to get around to reading it, but the wait was well worth it and I'm so glad I got around to reading it. Hamlet's dresser is a haunting memoir of a very difficult childhood for a boy whose younger sister is severly mentally handicapped and whose parents fold under the pressure. Bob ends up doing most of the care of his sister Carolyn and so never has much of a childhood. When he's a pre-teen, the local librarian introduces him to Shakespeare, an experience which he describes as life-changing.
The structure of the book is fantastic. Bob tells it as a fifty-something adult who survived this difficult childhood and has gone on to share Shakespeare with the elderly in homes and community centers across New York City. He weaves stories of his painful childhood with stories of the old people who surround him and stories of how his love for Shakespeare developed. In addition, there are references to Shakespeare's plays, characters, and ideas on every page, including lovely quotes from both the popular and the more obscure plays.

Here are a few excerpts:

In the sixty-plus class at the Ninety-second Street "Y," Rose is ninety-nine. Her sister died last year and Rose feels guilty. Her sister was only ninety-six. "I'll be one hundred on July 1. It should have been me. I'm the oldest."
"How are you today, Rose?"
"I'm just marvelous." She means that she's not supposed to be anything else. "I'm almost one hundred and everyone says how good I look," and she does. Rose resents her caregiver. So many of the old people do. "It's my freedom," she says. "I can't move without being observed and it drives me mad. I miss even the semblance of independence. I know I'm old, but I still want not to have to answer to anyone. You think that's stupid, Bob?" She crooks a beautifully manicured index finger toward me. "Come a little closer, I want to tell you something."
I kneel to get right in front of her mouth. Her lips are close enough to tickle my ear. "I'm leaking," she whispers. "I can't stop peeing. I look fine." She draws the word into a long painful sound.
"I am fine, but everything I've got is a century old. The plumbing is leaking, drip, drip, drip. Oh Bob, it's such a bore." She smiles. "But whatta ya gonna do? It's wonderful to be here. What's a little drip when there's Shakespeare? When you read some important line and look over at me, it's worth it. In a lifetime, what's a little pee?"

Poetry became a beautiful place to hide from my life and from my parents, a place I knew they'd never follow me.

I loved this book. I loved the Shakespeare and its connection to the real lives of both the author and the old people he reads to and I loved the way it made me feel.

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