My Aunt Bobbie turned 87 this past week. She is Mensa-smart, has a master’s degree in library science and spent her life collecting books. For this, I am forever thankful, because her favorite gifts to my family over the years were books. (They were our favorite gifts to receive as well.) She gifted a vast variety of volumes over the years; books everyone has heard of and quirky titles no one is familiar with.
Every Christmas we received a big, heavy box shipped from Aunt Bobbie in Alaska that was full of surprises. We knew by its weight the box held books but there was no guessing what topics they covered. She sent coffee table books, cookbooks, books for dummies, books for intellects, beloved classics and obscure manuals, pocket-sized books and tomes that were so heavy—not just in weight but in content—that we kept them only because they were perfect for pressing flowers. She even sent coloring books with pages that were translucent and designs that looked like stained glass windows, paper doll books and a book about how to play every game ever invented: According to Hoyle. She didn’t hesitate to write on the inside covers so the books we have from Aunt Bobbie are inscribed with defining words like, “Happy Birthday Sarah, 1965.” That wasn’t a big deal back then but now it is so cool to see her handwriting on a cover page, forever recording an event and an era.
She gave us Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners, Marguerite Henry’s horse stories, Rudyard Kipling and Hans Christian Andersen tales, and books gently exposing us to cultures different from our own like The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and the All of a Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor. She taught us to love nature through books such as Wait Till the Moon Is Full and Stuart Little and The Wind in the Willows. We learned to appreciate history through Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Johnny Tremain and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series (all nine of them). We dreamed of having best friends like Betsy and Tacy, Pippi, Madeline, Ramona, Heidi and so many more literary characters. (Oh, we shan’t forget Henry Huggins and Homer Price!) We were exposed to fairy tales and poetry, timeless classics and illustrated books worthy of gilded frames (think Tasha Tudor. It was a rich world of wonder Aunt Bobbie gave us!
Today everyone in my family is a reader. We prefer different genres but we read, thanks to Aunt Bobbie. (Credit also goes to my mom, a mother hen who gathered her chicks around her before bedtime to read aloud from the books her sister Roberta sent.)
Laudation must also be given to the public library. When I was growing up, summertime meant a weekly visit to the library where we would check out the maximum number of titles allowed, leaving the building with books spilling from our skinny little arms. Each trip to the library was like opening the Christmas box from Aunt Bobbie—times a katrillion. (That’s kid speak—not something Aunt Bobbie would have taught us). There is nothing as exquisite as the next adventure awaiting a curious mind to find it on the written page. There is no place as magical as a public library where we can have all of this—for free!
Aunt Bobbie’s personal library came close. Her home was floor to ceiling books plus more stacked in the kitchen, piled up in the bathtub, and teetering on every horizontal flat surface except her reading chair. With the sheer volume of publications in her possession, you’d think she’d have lost track of what she had. But such was not the case. Last time I visited her in Alaska, she had become wheelchair bound so when she wanted a certain book, she could tell me exactly where to find it. Around the corner, near the window, up on the top shelf, just to the left of the vase with artificial flowers in it. Look for a green spine, taller than the books around it and with gold lettering. Sure enough, there was the title she wanted.
Books were Aunt Bobbie’s life, her love, the end result of her pursuit of happiness. They were her family, her friends, her lovers.
When Aunt Bobbie had to move into a small assisted living unit, she was forced to part with her life’s accumulation of books. It was necessary. It was heartbreaking. When I last phoned her, she spoke of her grief.
“I should have kept them, ” she said. “I could have put them in storage. ” She knew that was illogical, but she was so lonely without her books. So when she mentioned one in particular, Innocent Merriment; An Anthology of Light Verse published in 1942, I ordered it online and had it sent to her in Alaska. Just one book. Surely she has room for that in her tiny apartment. She deserves to experience the delight, the same sense of joy she gave her nieces and nephews for all those years.
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© 2020 Sarah Donohoe