Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Reflections: A Legacy in Letters

My grandmother is dying.  I realize it's a rare thing to even have a grandparent at my age, but her impending loss is an ache nonetheless, that brings me to tears at random times, many times a day, since learning the news this week.  As I sit here, two states away, hobbled from visiting by whiteout conditions that caused a 40 car pileup and closed an Interstate, I am thinking of my grandmother and her legacy in letters.

I lived in the same town as my grandparents for only four years, while I was in college.  For the rest of my life, I have sent and received letters from Grandma O, but these saved slips of paper tucked into yellowing envelopes are not the only letters I have from her.  I have the handwritten recipes she sent me while I was studying abroad and missed home cooked meals.  Recipes for family recipes passed down through generations, like the one for "Brown Potato Soup" which includes measurements like "just enough" and instructions like "then cook until done."  I have diecut cards addressed to a baby me that my mom slipped between the pages of my baby book.

But most of all, I have the books.  Like many grandparents, Grandma O loves to give books as gifts, each inscribed with the date.  The first I can put my hands on is The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter, given to me on my first Christmas.  This is now a favorite readaloud for my own children.  I pored over this tiny book, marveling at the watercolor illustrations and words that managed to be both exotic and quaint, like “perambulator.” 

The Big Red Book, its actual name lost to time, was our go-to fun generator while spending summer weeks with Grandma and Grandpa.  It was massive, and had stories, both classic and “modern” to its WWII era publication date, but was also chock full of puzzles and games, trivia, spy codes, experiments, and instructions.  We didn’t mind that cousins that came before us had already penciled in answers here and there, the book was magic.  I’m certain that the creators of the Daring Book for Girls and The Dangerous Book for Boys had access to such a book in their youth because they are cut from the same cloth.  

It was Grandma O that gave me the full set of Anne of Green Gables that sustained me for months when I blew through everything else in my reading world within hours or days.  She read Freckles and Girl of the Limberlost aloud to me – books I would never have chosen on my own, but were full of rich descriptions of the natural world close to our home.  In sharing these stories, she shares what is important to her: family, love, small moments of beauty and joy.

Before my first child was born, Grandma gave us a book of Mother Goose poems, with illustrations that she remembered from her childhood.  Now when I recite these rhymes to my girls, I find myself using the same intonation that Grandma did when I was a child.  It's the same sound my girls will use when they recite them too, now, or twenty years from now.

In more recent years, I began sending books to Grandma O too.  I sent her A Long Way from Chicago soon after reading it myself, as the Depression era setting and rollicking humor in small moments so reminded me of the stories that she has shared with me over the years.  I sent her bestsellers and book discussion picks.  Grandma likes the sometimes dreaded genre of “nice stories” – but I’ve never dreaded finding a book for her.  She isn’t judgmental in her reading, but she likes the happy endings the best. 

Lately, Grandma has been doing a lot of storytelling.  She reminisces about her girlhood, the stories wrapping back around on themselves before beginning again, the words nearly identical as if grooves on a record that skipped.  One of the stories was about a book she loved as a girl, a story that sounded quite similar to Raggedy Anne, but wasn't.  Together, with Grandma's amazingly detailed memory of a few illustrations, we found Rag Doll Jane, and I learned that these rag doll stories were all the rage once upon a time.  Through some Internet magic, I helped Grandma buy used copies for all of us.

This doesn't have much to do with teen services, I suppose.  But the gift of discovery, the sharing of stories, and the dialog back and forth through the giving and receiving of books that my grandmother gave me is part of what nurtured me as a reader, which in turn led me to librarianship.  This legacy in letters from Grandma O is a part of the fiber of who I am now, just like the way I bounce a baby or use a paring knife, or the crease between my eyebrows.  I read them to my daughters just like I teach them the family recipes, and see a familiar face when I look in their smiling eyes.

So share books with the people you love.  Inscribe them.  Talk about them.  They will endure, and as they do, so will the memories of the time you share.



  1. I'm sorry to hear of your coming loss. There is something about grandmothers that tie us to the earth and yet still gives us wings. You have shared a lovely bit of yourself and her. Thank you!