We’ve emptied my mother’s bookshelves twice in the past year. The first time was to pack up the books that would go with her as she moved to a smaller space. Even with dimming eyesight her books were essential. The rest were being donated, given away; a very few, tossed. Some made their way to my already groaning bookcases.
The second time was to put into storage those that made the first cut as she struggles to recover from a stroke. We know there will be one more time but that can wait.
This was not just a case of sorting and boxing. At least not for me. Going through my mother’s books was like reading a journal of her life. What was scattered throughout the pages was just as, if not more, interesting than what was on the pages. It was like an archeological dig.
They were artifacts.
It was much more than prettily decorated bookmarks with a ribbon and an inspiring quote. There were envelopes with blurred postmarks and barely remembered return addresses, the original letter long gone. Postcards from relatives also long gone marked spots that had held interest. There were newspaper clippings with store ads on the other side - a lesson in economics. There were random strips of paper, mimeographed meeting notes, church bulletins, holy cards, holiday gift tags and the cards that peeped out of the arrangements that had been delivered from the local florist. I kept the small tatted cross, probably from Aunt Annie.
All of these things and more were sprinkled among books on art, psychology, philosophy and religion. There was Wayne Dyer’s first book, Your Erroneous Zones. “It changed my life”, she told me. There were more books on self-improvement, diet, health. Old books that had been read to tatters and were wrapped in contact paper that I remember from my childhood, the pages discolored, the spines seriously impaired. Our irony soaked favorites were the myriad books on de-cluttering. There was the random novel, but only a few. Reading was a serious pastime; learning and personal growth serious pursuits. Our mother’s is a life lived with interest
Her cook books were my favorites. Since I was very young I claimed the oldest one as mine. The one that was falling apart even then and is now covered in faux wood contact paper. That would be my inheritance. It wasn’t for the content, although it was fascinating to see how a household was run in the 40’s, how to deal with wartime shortages and what constituted a serving back then. It was for the view into a busy, inquiring mind during busy, challenging times as she raised six children while watching her pennies. It was seeing articles throughout the years on ways to lose weight (when she was feeling heavy). It was the changing views on how to stay healthy and fit. It was cupcakes and setting a pretty table. I didn’t know there could be that many ways to make a cheesecake as clippings moved from low-fat to diabetic friendly. Her wish list of things to try exceeded the hours in a lifetime. Tucked into the bulging book were Woman’s Day articles, decade’s old, and yellowed clippings from the home section of now defunct newspapers. There are receipts and menus and shopping lists and memories of many meals over many years.
On the last blank page of the cookbook there is a crumb cake recipe. It’s in her handwriting, as familiar to me as the feel of my fingers on this keyboard. Such a personal artifact, the script distinct in its sweep and swirl, her penmanship beautiful and unchanging over the years. Until now. When her right hand no longer accepts commands from her brain.
All these artifacts, like flies in amber, illuminate a story from another place and time. They give us a glimpse so we might know our mother a little better. What will we leave as artifacts? What story will it tell?
Kathy Kane blogs about the creative process in the everyday, in writing and in the magical transition to the second half of life.
Follow The Blog