Woodworking column: Buried in books, so to speak
Our old house on Walnut Street is stuffed with thousands of books, the result of my working for half of my adult life as a book reviewer for newspapers and magazines. It's a job that causes publishers to flood folks like me with copies of their new books, some of which I read and others which I don't.
In all those years I've kept the interesting books they've sent me, whether I've had time to read them or not. Stupid? You bet. I actually have nightmares of our bookcases crashing into the dark confines of our 150-year-old basement, beyond which lie dragons and other sea beasts.
Eventually, I'll pass on to the big used bookstore in the sky (or elsewhere) and my collection will end up in several dumpsters. No big loss, I guess, except for one small bookshelf in a hallway, that contains books from my childhood, which I constantly re-examine in an effort to discover the personalities of the folks who gave me these books as birthday and Christmas gifts.
I especially love the books I inherited from my paternal grandfather, a stoic man whom I never spent enough time with when he was still alive. But I do have his books except for the Horatio Alger collection he amassed as a boy that my stepmother gave to the Boy Scout paper drive when I was off in college.
But I still have the bestsellers from his young adulthood, like Irving Batchellar and "The Battleship Boys in Foreign Service," a 19th century equivalent to The Indiana Jones movies.
I have some of my mother's books, one, a Christmas present from her mother when she was 10. Horatio Alger again. Later she encouraged me to read her hardbound copy of "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," by Kate Douglas Wiggin. and a beautiful suede bound edition of love poems, some of which she underlined. When I read those, images of my father appear. I remember the book she was reading when she died young, the racy bestselling biography of
actor John Barrymore, which must have been exciting for a farm wife with two bratty kids to care for and cows to milk.
Her husband, my father, always talked about the bestseller from his roaring 20s high school years, "The President's Lady," a tell-all story by Nan Britten, President Warren Harding's mistress. Bill Clinton, apparently, had nothing on Warren. Unfortunately he never kept his copy, but I do have a complete set of hardbound novels by Zane Grey, which he read all the way through during his quarantine for measles. I haven't managed.
And then there were my aunties, sisters of my mother, who were very, very kind to me after her death. First there was Aunt Doree, who was known to have frequent spells, which made her either manic or depressed. When she was manic, she flooded me with books for kids, Rudyard Kipling, fictional adventures of the Bobbsey Twins (Nan Bobbsey keeps showing up in New York Times crossword puzzles.) and Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and child star Bonita Granville. When Doree was feeling low, she gave me adult books, notably when I was 10, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's "The G-String Murders," which I still own and cherish and a series I have lost, The Glencannon books, about a drunken Irish sea captain
And how can I forget Aunt Wyliss' gift. I lived with her and her mother-in-law "Aunt" Floy after my mother died. She was running her husband's produce company while he was in the Navy and she had her hands full. But she never forgot about me, taking me to movies every week they changed at the Pix Theatre, two blocks from the Harlow home. She bought me sodas at Fortun's drugstore and went to bat for me when my third grade teacher scolded me when she learned that I had not learned to write in long-hand at the backward rural school I had attended.
And for Christmas, she gave me a Holy Bible. A fancy one. So fancy that its Methodist publishing house had printed the words of Jesus Christ in red. I couldn't figure this out. Aunt Wyliss never attended the Methodist church with her mother-in-law. Five years later the gift turned out to be spectacular. When I enrolled in Lutheran confirmation class, which in those days was more demanding than a Fulbright at Oxford. We were expected to memorize, semi-colon by semi-colon the entirety of Martin Luther's Small Catechism, which isn't very small. And read The Holy Bible and underline in red pencil all of the words of Jesus Christ, which was to be turned into the pastor at year's end. Back when I got the Bible, I tried reading it, but all the begats were too overwhelming, so I set it aside and concentrated on "Aunt" Floy's gift, the Classic Comics Book of The Bible, a very thick paperback that cost Floy a whole dollar. (Joseph had a coat of many colors.)
I set it aside, but then I picked up Wyliss' version of the Bible and raced through the New Testament, red ballpoint in hand, looking for the bright red typeface that she had thoughtfully given me as a wee lad. What does this mean? It means that shortcut permitted me time to memorize all those "What Does This Mean?" answers.