One weekend recently I was going through some old books on my shelves. Some are very old books bequeathed to me, while others were purchased over the years in various used bookstores where I have happily spent many hours on a rainy afternoon. Usually I have a general idea of the type of book I am looking for-maybe an Agatha Christie mystery or a PG Wodehouse comedy, or some account from an explorer traveling the world. Even if I don’t find any of those, the pleasure is in the browsing and inevitably I bring home some old gem. One thing I realized though is that it isn’t always the book itself that makes it a gem. Sometimes it is what happens when you open the cover.
Something my wife and I have always done when we give one another books at special occasions is to write a note just inside the cover. It gives that book a reference in time, and a marker of sorts of the things you were interested in that particular year. But as I open the cover on those old books, and see similar notes sometimes from decades ago, I often wonder about who those people were. What did that particular aging book, delicately held in my hands all these years later, mean to them at the time as a brand new one? What did it signify about their lives at the time? Or even, where did they live, and where was the book purchased? I also thought that books are a bit like currency, They can sometimes travel far and wide, changing cities, states, even countries on a whim. It is of course impossible to really know, but I had an idea to write a bit of fiction based on that idea. Almost thinking if that book could speak, what story would it tell. There is no music in this post, just a bit of imagination. So gather round, while I tell a little story…
The Book-Five Great Modern Irish Plays
Published By-The Modern Library, 1941
The Dedication-(Undecipherable) November 26, 1945
Boston, Massachusetts-November 26, 1945
Susan Leary was fretting. Today was her father’s birthday and she wanted to give him something special. There had not been much cause for celebration in recent years, both as a nation and for their family. For any family actually. But with the signing of Japan’s formal surrender on September 2nd, life was slowly starting to become bearable again. Bearable in that the first topic of conversation was no longer ‘the war’. Bearable in that the official letters stopped coming announcing that someone else’s son or neighbor had been killed in combat on some far off battlefield.
Such a letter had come in their family. Susan’s only sibling, her older brother James had perished at the Battle Of Monte Cassino in January of 1944. Though it had not quite been two years yet, it seemed like a lifetime ago now since the news arrived. Susan was devastated, but everyone throughout the entire country was as well. No family was left unscathed. Her father (also a James, but affectionately referred to as Jimmy Sr) was characteristically stoic when the news came, no doubt a result of his own service in World War I, but since the wars end Susan noticed small bursts of emotion occurring. A wistful far away look at a family portrait taken in happier times, before Susan’s mom had passed away. An ‘excuse me for a moment’ retreat to the bathroom when someone made a seemingly innocent comment about the house being quiet. Those were all understandable to Susan, but one evening, when she thought he had gone to bed, she realized he was in James’ room, perusing books that had remained untouched since he had shipped out. This was a different sort of behavior.
Most of them Jimmy Sr and his wife Dolores had given James over the years. They had always encouraged their children to read, and Jimmy, like Susan had held on to most of them. As she stood frozen outside the door, silently watching her father she realized that he seemed less interested in the content of the books but was instead delicately opening up each cover and gently tilting his head towards the upper right hand corner. At first she was puzzled as to why he was doing this. Was he looking for a book to read before bedtime she thought? After he picked up the fourth book, cradling it gently in his hands, he again opened only the cover, and again his head leaned right. That is when she realized why he was doing this.
Just like with James, her dad had always written a little note of some sorts in any book that had been given. Always in ink, always in the top right hand corner. Usually it was something simple, like ‘Happy Birthday Susan, We thought you might like this story, July, 1934.’ Other times it was a touch more personal- ‘Susan, You have grown up so fast, I wish time could stop so we could forever preserve the moments of joy.’ That was the last one Susan could recall, written shortly before Dolores passed away in 1939. After her passing, and then the start of the war, and finally with James’ death there were no more books, no more notes written in them.
A few days after witnessing this scene Susan was thinking of what she might give to her father for his birthday. The war years had been lean for gifts of any kind, but now that it was over, she thought he might enjoy something small. Perhaps it may even get him out of the emotional bursts he was having. One afternoon while on her lunch break, she strolled over towards Cornhill and found herself in the Brattle Book Shop, a mainstay of the neighborhood for years. As Susan perused the titles she found herself picking up one particular volume. Being a family with close ties to Ireland, a lot of the books she and James had been given over the years had been by some of the great Irish writers. She knew that her father was especially keen on Irish literature, and was prone to reciting snippets of various poems and books when she was growing up. Without much further thought, she went to the desk to pay for the book, an anthology called ‘Five Great Irish Plays’ with works by John Synge, Sean O’Casey and Lady Gregory.
Susan Leary was fretting. Today was her father’s birthday and she sat in her room with the parcel containing the book purchased for him the other day. She was fretting not so much about the book itself, but was wondering if she should return to the tradition of inscribing a note in the front cover. Would the gesture be misconstrued? Would it unleash a torrent of emotion on her father’s part, an unburdening of the loss of his wife and son. She also fretted about what she should write. Should she keep it simple the way he had at times – ‘Happy Birthday Da’…that sort of thing, or elaborate further? One thing she knew is that if she was going to revive the tradition, she would do it in her own way. She opened up the book, took pen in hand and in a break with tradition wrote her note, this time on the left hand side of the page…
Robert P. Doyle
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