Autobiography has always been the central focus of my writing. In my poems and journals, I almost always end up referring to incidents, places, and people from my past or present. Writing is a way of archiving elements of my life that might otherwise disappear. This is directly related to the nomadic quality of my childhood and adolescence.
One of the earliest autobiographies I remember reading was published by my great grandfather in the 1940s. Strangely enough, it's a book by a Venezuelan American journalist named Thomas Russell Ybarra (1890-1971). My great grandfather published two of Ybarra's books under the imprint that carried his name:
Bolívar, The Passionate Warrior (New York: Ives Washburn, 1929)
Young Man of Caracas (New York: Ives Washburn, 1941)
The copy I have of the 1941 book is a worn hardcover edition, with Ybarra's inscription to my great grandfather signed "Tom." The book is of interest to me because of its account of the author's life in Caracas during the early decades of the 20th century, before oil had transformed the city into the massive metropolis it is today.
This is the only book published by Ives Washburn that I own. He published non-fiction from the 1920s until his death in the 1940s. After his death, the company was bought and it continued to publish under the same name until the mid 1970s.
I know of my great grandfather only through a portrait of him that hangs in my uncle's house here in Boston, and from a few anecdotes that my grandmother has told me. He died, for instance, at a relatively young age when he fell down a flight of stairs one evening, maybe during a cocktail party. She has also mentioned that Ybarra and my great grandfather were friends.
I have moved so often in my life that I am acutely aware of how easily things can be lost: people, places, clothes, books, languages. Books in particular have provided me with a sense of permanence, or home. The copy of Young Man of Caracas was taken from my grandfather's library after his death in 1984. I don't remember if I took it from his bookshelves when I was in New York for his funeral, or if my mother set it aside, knowing the topic would interest me.
When I was in Caracas in 2002, my sister and I went with our cousin to visit her mother's and our grandparents' graves in the Cementerio del Este. As we were leaving, my cousin recalled a conversation she once had with our grandfather. He had mentioned why reading was his life-long passion: "When you die you can't take anything with you. The only things you can take are the ideas and thoughts in your mind."