On a hilltop ten minutes from downtown Charlottesville stands Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. I hadn’t visited the house in years—decades actually, but I wanted to return and hoped to see the book.
When my dad became ill, he gave me a first edition of Thomas Jefferson’s only full length book, Notes on the State of Virginia. I was with him when he bought it during the 60s at an antique show not far from Monticello. We walked the perimeter of the pavilion glancing at much lesser books while he contemplated the purchase. It was expensive, but eventually he succumbed to the temptation to add one of the most important books of early America to his collection.
One day, not long before Alzheimers destroyed his mind, my dad gave me the book. My mother had died years before. His second wife said, “Harry, that’s your favorite. Are you sure you want to give it away.”
“Yes,” he answered.
I grabbed it and thanked him. I loved that book.
It sat on the top shelf in our den out of the reach of our three kids and their tiny, destructive hands. Then one day, Pat mentioned to me, “I saw a show about your dad’s book. I think it’s quite valuable.”
“I know it is. I was with him when he bought it.”
Pat’s question forced me to consider what I should do with the book. It seemed silly to stash it on the top shelf and never look at it. Yet selling it was not an option. Then the most obvious solution occurred to me; I called the curator of Monticello and left a message.
Minutes later, my secretary sought me out, “A man is on the phone who desperately wants to talk to you.”
“Monticello doesn’t possess a first edition copy of Notes,” the curator informed me.
“You do now,” I replied.
The next day, I shipped it. The next month, I received a life time membership to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation which owns and administers Monticello. That summer, the curator led my family on a backrooms tour of the home while I worked—unable to join them.
I am comforted in knowing the location of my father’s book, that it is loved, and that his name is permanently attached to it–my only requirement in making the gift.
This occurred in 1998. Fast forward to two weeks ago.
Friday was a beautiful day; Pat and I headed to Monticello. My life time membership card perished in the purge so I paid the fifty dollar admission fee for the two of us and speculated if we would see the book, but I doubted it.
The Monticello grounds are vast, the property lovely, wooded, and manicured. The home sits on the pinnacle of a mountain with an expansive view in all directions. The house is amazingly intact down to the hardwood floors and many of the pane glass windows.
As we waited for our tour time, a welcome woman told our group to ask the guide if we had any specific interests or questions. As I entered the house, I summarized the story and asked our guide if she knew of the book. She called across the room to a staff member, “Can you please research Notes. This woman donated it.”
In the second room, a man interrupted our tour to ask my name.
In the third room, Thomas Jefferson’s library, a woman entered and said, “Would you like to see your book. It’s in this room.”
There it was, on a shelf encased in glass. I whispered to Pat, “Get a photo.”
He whispered back, “Photos are forbidden in the house.”
But I had seen the book, which for me was like seeing my father again.
The tour was informative, the house spectacular. When we stepped outside for the final words from our guide, Pat whispered into my ear, “I took a picture of the book. It’s on my phone.”
Afterwards, we drove a mile or so down the road and ate a delicious peach, mozzarella, basil and prosciutto sandwich at Salt–a simple, perfect cafe in a converted gas station. Then we uncorked a bottle of red wine across the street at Jefferson Vineyards. As we sat in a pair of Adirondack chairs under the shade of a tree, I flipped through the photos on Pat’s phone.
Then I messaged my son. “Mike, we saw the book.”
“That’s awesome mom.”
And he was right.
Categories: The United States