It is my Auntie M’s fault.
Or perhaps, going to a beginning (because the actual beginning is too far back for my own tangible connection, and a beginning is as close as I can name), it is the fault of my great-grandmother.
Grandma Fern was born in 1889, into a sod house on the Kansas prairie. Her family, of very modest means, valued words as the way to make one’s way in life; she learned to read very young, and for the rest of her nearly 102 years, kept books as constant companions. She married a Methodist minister in 1908, and was left a widow with four children (and my grandfather on the way) during the influenza epidemic of 1919. The stolen moments she spent with words were a comfort and a distraction from the struggles of young widow-hood. Her interests were vast and varied: novels, religious tomes, agriculture pamphlets, missionary reports, poetry (especially poetry), classic literature, children’s books. I treasure the two pieces of her own writing (outside of her letters) that have come down to me, a poem written on a fine spring day in 1926, and a short story written for her children a few years earlier.
Grandma Fern was a quintessential Victorian lady, the last of an age. I recall the faint creak of her girdle, the firmness of the encased torso in her hugs, in such contrast to my ungirdled grandma on the other side of the family. She wore hats and gloves when she stepped out the front door, her silver-white hair coiled into its neat chignon at the base of her neck. She wore aprons in the house, and rubber boots in the rose garden. She hummed opera and hymns while washing dishes. She knew how to set a table for formal Russian service, and how to seat important guests to satisfy the needs of Madame Conversation and Dame Etiquette. She watched the world move from horse-and-buggy to space travel, from Marconi’s first radio broadcast to the Internet. But she remained a bit apart from the modern, comfortably surrounded by the tin-plate photos of long-dead relations, the lush roses that climbed the porch columns, the linens embroidered so lovingly by hand in years past. And of course, her books.
Books were everywhere in her cottage. They could be discovered tucked into the drawers of the china buffet, in the piano bench, nestled midst pitchers and platters in the kitchen breakfront; there was even a basket of books stashed next to the pink-enameled, cast iron, claw-foot tub in the bathroom (not that anyone of her dignity ever read in the Necessary!). Books were stacked in every possible place, but the crowning glory was in the front parlour.
Just behind a lumpy horsehair sofa stood The Bookcase. My brothers were content to rummage in the basket of tin trucks my great uncles had played with as children, or plink the keys of the piano she purchased on a school teacher’s salary at eighteen. But for me!—the glorious Bookcase, redolent with the scent of lemon oil, and leather, and paper. I read as a freezing person sucks in great draughts of piping soup; Caddie Woodlawn, Laura Ingalls, and the March sisters were dear friends that I met beneath the overstuffed roll of the sofa arm, tucked away between the polished walnut of the case and the comforting dusty fabric smell of the draperies.
Grandma Fern herself smelled wonderfully of the mixed perfumes of sugar cookies, rose powder, and old books. I do not recall that she ever directly introduced me to The Bookcase, nor did she ever speak of what I found there. But she knew, in that way only certain people can, exactly when to change the books in the lowest shelf, opening for me new worlds, and introducing new friends, sometimes before even I knew it was time to move on. I have a feeling she had done it before, with my mother and my Auntie. No one grows so quietly observant without practice. The things she planted blossomed gloriously.
My mother was a librarian before I was born (love affairs hatched under the arm of Grandma’s couch seem to be a hereditary state). Her boss, a lovely Persian fellow, hated to lose her to maternity leave, and suggested she bring me along “and put it in the baby cage” (which, after a bit of concept-wrangling, Mom corrected as “PLAYPEN, Mr A!”). Gastric reflux and volubly-expressed colic in my lovely newborn self put paid to my being raised amongst the stacks, but at home, Mom quickly figured out where to strategically tarp the carpet, and read to me while we nursed, burped, gurped up, and started over.
She read to the whole growing stack of us daily, often while feeding whomever was the current nursling, and later, as a means to pry us out of our beds in the morning. (When you’re at a good part in the family read-out-loud book, and Mom won’t start reading until everyone is out of their bed, and there’s a firm deadline to *stop* reading at 7:30 a.m., no matter what, there tends to be a lot of cooperative dragging and threats of bodily harm among siblings.) When my exhausted mother fell asleep in the midst of a story one nursing session, she woke up to discover a 4-year-old me reading to my brothers. Reading was like breathing–it was something I thought a person just *did*. So I did it.
(Library habits are hard to overcome; we were the only household I knew that had a working card catalog in a recipe box, our own full set of encyclopedias, and a Mom who was really conflicted over demanding we put down our book for chores or bed time, particularly if we said, “But I’m nearly at the end of the chapter/good part/book!” in a plaintive manner. I am ashamed to say, we did this. But, my children do it to me, too, and I have the same conflict as my Mom. Karmic retribution.)
I had my first library card as soon as I could see over the librarian’s desk and sign my own name. When I visit home, I still find books with my 4-year-old “signature”, my “fancy” 8-year-old quasi-cursive, my draftsman-precise block printing from high school. (My kids think it’s really cool to find family names in the books at Grandma’s library–it’s like finding out that carved inscription in the excavated tomb belongs to your own relative, I think. How often do we think of our own parents and aunties and uncles young enough to love the books we ourselves love?)
But it’s still a lot my Auntie’s fault, I think.
My mother’s sister is only twelve years my senior; when I was very small, she lived with us for a time. I remember only that she played a guitar for us, and sang funny songs. As I grew, she lived in our town, first in a little apartment of her own, then in a small house surrounded by lavender beds. In stark contrast to Grandma Fern, Auntie M is thoroughly modern, with subtle romantic leanings. She is small and vibrant, with large brown eyes that seem to absorb everything around her; there is not a single girdle in her wardrobe, and it’s quite likely she burned a few bras during those guitar-playing days. She is like Grandma Fern only in that she is rarely completely still, and has the same passionate, quiet, enduring love of books. She found in her young niece a willing accomplice in that love affair.
The first book she gave me was both a gift and a challenge. She illustrated the pages with delicate roses and ribbons intertwining beautifully written titles, leaving the tinted pages beguiling in their blankness. I was eight; she told me it was time I began to write my own story, and this was a book to begin with. She smiled, and issued a standing invitation to visit her bookcases whenever I wished, “for inspiration.” I have the little book, filled with my childish “calligraphy” handwriting; it is tucked in my journal, and filled with notes on my birthday celebration and wishes for the coming Eighth Year of life.
Auntie M’s house smelled of books, just as had Grandma Fern’s, of paper and leather and ink and the inevitable dust. But here, too, was the spicy patchouli of incense, and lavender. Instead of polished walnut, the cases that lined nearly every wall of her house were cinder-block and pine board, the boards sagging pregnantly beneath the weight of their eclectic load. They housed a wonderful potpourri of classic literature and pulp fiction, organic gardening and whole foods nestling shoulder to shoulder with Dickens and essays by the Founding Fathers. Tolkein, Steven King, Kafka, and Tolstoy found an easy home on her shelves. Though I found it all fascinating, I rarely pulled a book from its tightly-packed position, instead spending my visits running gentle fingers along the spines of elegant leather bindings, tattered paperbacks while Mom and Auntie M visited in the kitchen. The enormity of the collection was striking to my young eyes: I, who made do with four shelves and several stacks, plus twice-weekly forays to the local lending library. To own such riches was nearly unimaginable, and yet my Aunt did own them, and read them, and shared them.
The fall I turned thirteen, I was kept in bed by a myriad of ailments. My freshman coursework held my attention for only minutes a day; I quickly exhausted the store of books in the house, and was quarantined from friends and my library expeditions. Looking back, I realize that it was depression and mental boredom more than illness that inspired many afternoons of napping. Shortly before my birthday that fall, waking from a nap one afternoon, I caught the drifting notes of patchouli from a tall stack of books on the chair by my bed. Tucked in the cover of the top volume was a scrap of paper, ornamented with her sweeping handwriting: “Let me know when you’ve finished, and I’ll bring more. –M”
Here was bliss! Here was luxury! A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Vanity Fair, A Brief History of Time, Growing the Contained Garden… Here were worlds enough to keep me musing for weeks on end. I’d nibble through a stack, keeping three or four in play at once, then send them back through my mother with a note: “More historical stuff, please… and another mystery or two? –E”
The pen near my bed was kept busy, noting fragments of conversation, random character sketches, and literary devices that caught my ear. As my body recovered, I found I had changed; with spring came a blossoming of the world, and of my mind. Always a reader, I had fallen in love with books anew–a torrid, consuming passion–and refused to give them up to the fleeting entertainments favored by the others at school. I might forget my textbook, but every teacher could count on my having a novel or book of poetry hidden under the edge of the desk. With Auntie M and my mother complicit in their quiet encouragement, I grew voracious in a quest for the written word, the lyric turns of phrase that hide in every well-written book. And through it all, I could depend upon Auntie M having either read the same book, or a review, or the jacket synopsis, and prepared to discuss it, rehashing the finer points in quick moments and chance meetings in town.
My Auntie enjoys the companionship of our shared passion, I think. Life will bubble on normally for months; then a wrapped package will arrive in the mail. No note, save on the inner leaf, but always with that faint whiff of spice. Mid-spring of my senior year, Steven King’s The Stand (“Keep the lights on while reading. –M”); on the eve of college, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (“Ignore the Professor. S&W know best. –M”); a month before our first child was born, On the Occasion of my Last Afternoon (“Put your feet up. –M”); in a busy fall as we bought our first house, On Writing by King (“A little something for your left brain. –M”).
The arrivals puzzle my other enduring love: the Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal fellow I married. “Why does she send you books?” They never arrive on any sort of schedule, never near an appropriate Gift Giving Occasion. They have no consistent theme, nothing to explain their presence or relevance. Some are new volumes, some copies from the second-hand store.
“Why does she send you books?” I smile. I don’t know really, not well enough to condense it into a quick reply. But I understand, and I am grateful. It’s for the same reason I purchase a pair of some of my favorite books: one to keep, and one to give away when the moment comes. It’s why I release novels into the wild in airports when I go away to teach.
It is the reason I add books to the lowest shelves for my children to discover, luring them into that same world of letters. It is a link of tradition, between me, and them, and Grandma Fern, and the other “reading women” (and men) of our family, stretching back into murky mists of time.
It’s why my brother and his lovely wife gladly share a big stack of graphic novels with my oldest offspring when we get a chance to visit. It is why, on more than one occasion, my mother has needed to sit on the front steps and read a new story to my children, because she can’t delay sharing it with them, not even long enough to go inside and pee after an eight-hour drive.
(It’s why my FOO (Family of Origin) established a “who gets the book next” reading heirarchy according to speed, why books are passed around that system that’s been pretty set for decades, why we have extended-family book discussions on a shockingly frequent basis, and why marrying into our oddness comes with a Required Reading list, to get the new addition up to speed on the myriad references that keep us snorking until we wheeze and cry.)
It is why used book shops will always suck us in when we travel (what better souvenir of a trip to the ocean than an ancient copy on The Care and Feeding of Your Volkswagon, really? Particularly if you’re 15 years old and really want a vintage VW of your own to drive off to culinary school?)
It’s why we bring cookies to our librarians, why our librarians help us search Alibris for personal copies of favorite books we’ve only ever found at the library. It’s why we ride the 50-items-out-per-card limit there. It’s why our postman asks, “What’s new to read?” when we get those packages in the mail.
It’s why I married a man who builds me bookcases any time I bat my eyelashes just right.
It’s a love affair, an addiction, a series of heady escapes, the knowledge of the ages, our family history, shared laughter, soaked hankies, and the joy of seeing my children curled up together with words.
It’s because we know the preternatural draw of a well-filled bookcase, the fragrance and texture of a printed page, the delight of “Chapter One”, and the gentle sorrow of “The End.”
It is my Auntie’s fault, and my Grandmother’s, and my Mother’s and mine. And I am grateful.