CHALK IT UP TO INSTINCT, but after my mother passed away, I did something right. I kept her scant remaining belongings in boxes in my office to sift through at my leisure. These were the things that she never let go, so they would be clues to what mattered to her most. Naturally, sheet music predominated–her fellow nursing-home residents enjoyed her at the keyboard right up until her final illness. There were family photos, of course, and notebooks from special trips. I’m still confused by the fake chocolate rabbit, but her books spoke volumes. For me they offered a direct window into my mother’s mind.
Ruth Moore’s music career began at age 13 when she became the organist for the church directly across the street from my grandparent’s farm. She modestly pointed out that most of the congregants were relatives, but nevertheless church became both a spiritual and social focus. Yet along with C.S. Lewis’s THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS about God and devils and EMBRACED BY THE LIGHT by Betty J. Eadie (near death experiences) was a pamphlet about a famous Alaskan prostitute, Dolly Arthur, hinting that Mom had a broad mind as well as a prodigious curiosity. Indeed she was a remarkably unbiased representative of her generation, a standard I suspect set by her father, Irvin, who maintained that everyone was entitled to a friendly hello.
The two books of clean jokes prompted memories of the silly laughs Mom loved to share. Her moods were amazingly, almost unnaturally, upbeat; and when I asked how she managed it, she answered that she didn’t like to be alone.
At first I thought EXCUSE MY DUST by Bellamy Partridge (1943) might explain her housekeeping priorities, but it had belonged to her second husband and was about early transportation.
So far, the only book of hers I’ve read in its entirety has been NICKLES AND DIMES, a children’s book by Nina Brown Baker, which sold for 50 cents, “slightly higher in Canada.” The story of F. W. Woolworth’s young wish to work in a store began on a farm during the Civil War and ended with his well-deserved wealth building the then tallest skyscraper in the world. Woolworth’s rise was attributed to a focused ambition, hard work, and his belief that customers should be offered “good goods” at a price they could afford. Also that they should be treated with respect and allowed to make up their own minds. Core American beliefs worth preserving.
Beside two small books on handwriting analysis was the FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS EAST OF THE ROCKIES by Roger Tory Peterson, “completely new” (in 1980). I was taught the name of every bird that flew over our yard, and some days my husband and I feel as if we’re supporting a wildlife zoo. Mom also had several Zane Grey novels and anthologies, for she loved a rollicking good story. I was especially pleased to discover a hardback copy of 3 AT WOLFE’S DOOR by Rex Stout, the author I was probably steered toward at age 10, the one who made me decide writing mysteries would be fun.
Most poignant were the eight paperbacks that used to sit between two brass bookends front and center on my mother’s shelf, each one autographed to her with enormous gratitude and undying love. I am still ambushed by her absence every day.