SOMEWHERE in this house there must be upwards of a dozen genuine bookmarks, most of them given to us by traveling friends. Bookmarks are ideal for souvenir purposes. Alas, in our hands at least, they have virtually no staying power. A day or two and they are off, into that vast unseen holding area into which disappear so many fragments of daily living, perhaps to surface again, perhaps not.
We've had lots of traveling friends, and we've been tourists ourselves, but where indeed are the bookmarks to prove it? Is even one of them at the ready, waiting to be slipped between the pages of a book when I need it? Never, or at best hardly ever. Invariably they're in hiding and I'm in a hurry; I take the easy way out and settle for an alternative close at hand.
Perhaps I notice an empty envelope lying on a nearby table and pick it up. Fine. I have a bookmark. What I won't have - as I will find out when I want it later, after the envelope has gone forever - is the new return address my old classmate had thoughtfully provided on it.
Or I absent-mindedly commandeer a week-old party invitation. It will surely get lost after it has done its literary duty, and I will subsequently have to hunt like crazy for it because I can't remember whether the party was scheduled for 7:30 or 8 p.m., or even 5 o'clock in the afternoon. Calling to ask might imply a lack of enthusiasm for the whole idea, and obviously it would be rude to arrive too late, unforgivable to arrive too early.
Most likely, I just tear off the corner of a page in a newspaper - hopefully not an article somebody hasn't finished reading.
But when the telephone rings or the doorbell chimes when I'm just finding out whodunit, I have to admit I grab the first thing I see that's both within reach and within reason. A ruler, a glove, a magazine, even an eyeglass case can pinch-hit temporarily. Anything to avoid closing the book or - perish the thought! - turning down the corner of the page.
Some of the bookmarks I've lost access to have traveled a long way to reach this dubious hospitality. One of the most elaborate and intricately designed ones came home with one of our daughters from a trip to the museums of Italy, stayed briefly, and vanished. Another, a little beauty, with tiny bits of dried fern and flowers under a protective see-through covering, came from an island in the Caribbean. If I ever see it again I'm going to put it in plain - or, more likely, slightly veiled - sight on my bureau. It will fit in with the other memorabilia that have found their way there.
One of my favorites was (I use the past tense advisedly) a truly elegant bookmark I bought for myself long ago at the gift shop in Westminster Abbey. Made of royal purple leather, it was embossed with the shining figure of a centuries-past patriarch of the church. Optimist that I am, I thought that whenever I used it I'd be reminded of that notable first trip to England. Fortunately, my memory of the trip is fine without any talisman since I fear the bookmark has departed this life.
Other bookmarks have come to us from no distance at all, from local fairs or from school, where busy little fingers have cut and colored and pasted for our benefit. Surprisingly, I actually know where one of these is. Made of cardboard, it has a pasted, shellacked child's picture on it, as well as a laboriously printed greeting. I used it conspicuously right after he gave it to me, to demonstrate proper appreciation, but since then it has remained in a special drawer.
I still look at it occasionally and reflect nostalgically on the time when its maker's face matched the one in the picture, but it's too valuable to use and risk losing. Maybe I have something in common with the old Maine couple who were given a pair of easy chairs for their 50th wedding anniversary. When a caller, coming to see them after the celebration, looked around the room and didn't see the chairs, he asked what happened to them. ``Oh, they're up attic,'' they told him. ``They're too good to use!''
It's not hard to see why bookmarks end up in limbo rather than in circulation. They're not coffee-table artistic, and they're thin and eminently losable - even in quantity.
My sister-in-law bought a dozen last summer to go with books she was planning to give for Christmas, but by December all 12 bookmarks had disappeared. Maybe they'll turn up in time for the books she gives next Christmas. Or maybe she'll buy the sterling silver bookmarks promoted by an upscale jeweler for discriminating readers who already have everything. A silver one might even make it to the coffee table - and thence to the inside of a book.