I came through my mother’s front door and glanced left across the formal living into the dining area of my childhood home. This was Mama’s “good room” – what we called it from my teen years and beyond. I remember seeking privacy for phone calls to boyfriends on that oriental rug with exotic colors – deep blue and rust. The walls are still the same shade of burnt orange they have been for 40 years. Timeless, somehow. Like she was.
I could see on the far wall stacks of books below the relatively recent addition of birch wood china cabinets. The entire surface, about ten feet across and two feet deep, was covered – giving it the appearance of a public library used book sale. A stark contrast to Mom’s purpose for the space, as a buffet to serve our supersized family delicious meats, casseroles and salad.
I walked up to study the stacks more closely. These, too, would be among my mother’s belongings that my five siblings and I would be dividing up since she passed that previous December. In many ways to me, they were the most precious.
I studied the titles: “Because of Winn Dixie,” a fictional tale about a child and her dog. A much larger, more sober title, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. An early paperback edition of The Scarlett Letter. Plus Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy, and the fictional, The Clowns of God, one of the Vatican trilogy. There were numerous biographies, including, Cissy, a profile of journalist and newspaper editor Eleanor Medill Patterson and Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings. Dante’s The inferno and C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, one of National Review’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century. There were several versions of Rand McNally guides and this: Risen from the Ashes: Petrodvorets, Pushkin, Pavlovsk, a story of three major Russian palaces in the St. Petersburg area that were severely damaged in WWII.
Nothing seemed beyond my mother’s curiosity.
One of my sisters had collected the books from Mom’s various stashes. We grew up surrounded by them – recipe books stuffed in kitchen drawers, a bedroom-turned-office with built in bookshelves, floor to ceiling, covering an entire wall. And a TV room/den with shelves lined on both sides of the fireplace and cabinets below, all decorated with books.
“Mama June” as most people called her, didn’t finish college (she fell in love with my football player dad and married instead), but she had a lifelong love of learning. Her go-to was a set of encyclopedias. My niece, who grew up next door, told me, “I remember very well coming up to Mama June’s house to use her Worldbook Encyclopedias because our Britannica ones did not have any photos.”
When my husband and I lived out of state, I would call to ask Mom advice about a medical condition or other challenge I was having. Suddenly, I’d hear her flipping through the encyclopedia. Yesterday’s Google.
In the last dozen or so years of my mother’s life, she began giving me rare books – cloth cover and antique looking. Sometimes they were collections, such as five of the six books in Winston Churchill’s Second World War series. Others were more whimsical and I suspect she bought them for their cover design or their intriguing title: The Book of Friendship: Essays, Poems, Maxims & Prose Passages (1909). This one has a celestial looking cover of butterfly, hearts and flowers. It had been a gift after Mom and Dad’s trip to London one year. There’s a postcard tucked in it from that university-sponsored tour. “Next trip my girls must come with me – what a place for theatre, great art and architecture. Bookstores every other place, it seems. Lots and lots of old books, too. Want to browse, but haven’t had time!”
Another favorite is the delicate Jessica’s First Prayer (1867) – a child-size treasure, with its ornate floral and vine cover.
I recently discovered one of them, “My Favorite Story” (1928), was only available through a subscription of Cosmopolitan magazine. Mother’s note says she chose it because the writers provided an explanation for their selections. “I found the authors’ reasons very interesting. I also remember my younger self enjoying these types of stories in the magazines. I bought (them) for their stories. Today, the women’s magazines are all ads. Tiresome!”
Mom ended her note, “The other two books are treasures for reference and for developing perspective.” One of them was Descartes Selections (1927) an early Scribner’s book and Henry Thoreau’s Walden, still bearing a yellow sticky note marking the passage, “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
As I stood in Mom’s dining room that afternoon, I felt paralyzed. How could I possibly select? I wanted them all!
In the end I chose carefully, because, like Mom, my own collection was already extensive. Among them, The Giant Book of American Quotations, Florida Wild Flowers, J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Thomas Merton’s Disputed Questions.
Eclectic. I was pretty sure Mom would approve.