Tag Archives: Maxine Hong Kingston

Artifacts to Memories: Books, Bookstores, and E.B.White

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My dear friend, Mary Blocksma, has started a year-long memoir-writing project, and has generously invited others to join in.

I admire Mary’s abilities as a writer. Her background of writing scholastic literature, as well as her sense of fun, make her children’s books some of the very best. An education in library science and research shows itself gracefully – alongside her love of nature – in books about the flora and fauna of forests and shorelines. Her ability to put words together – in poetry or creative writing – often takes my breath away. Mary is also a skilled teacher and editor. This was an opportunity I could not pass up!

The method Mary is using for pulling out and writing about a lifetime of memories is genius: she uses objects collected or saved throughout her life as a jumping-off point. As a fellow “saver” (I shy away from saying “hoarder”) I know that objects are saved for the life events and heart-strings attached to them. Why not use them, then, for the memories that they hold? So, that is the premise.

Mary is calling her excavation “My Life as a Dig,” and has already, in this new year, written several lovely essays. I am planning to devote one of my writing days each week to the project, under the title “Artifacts to Memories.” And here I go!

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I was a twenty-four year old “re-entry” college student, already a wife and the mother of two young daughters, when I first entered a good bookstore. My friend Linda and I had driven off the campus of Mott Community College during a break between classes. Downtown Flint, Michigan was an exciting and welcoming place in the mid-seventies. Interesting shops and little galleries were tucked in among novel restaurants and bars. We were on our way to Hat’s Pub for lunch. Their julienne salad was a lovely mound of matchstick sliced vegetables, meats and cheeses; vegetarian pizza was piled high with alfalfa sprouts; the bohemian atmosphere of the place was always fun.

Walking from the parking lot to the pub, we came upon a little corner bookstore: Young & Welchan’s. We might have missed it, if it weren’t for the stacks of books organized in neat piles and rows on tables on either side of the door. Beautiful books! Hardcover books! Brand new! With price tags that stunned me: $2.95; $4.95; ninety-nine cents! As a student, I was spending a great deal of money each semester on textbooks; I was haunting the campus library for other required reading. As a fairly new (proud) member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, I knew the value of a hardcover book! I had never come upon “remaindered” books before. This was amazing!

There, like a gift from the heavens, was E.B.White. My English teacher had just been reading excerpts of his work! She had been glorifying him as “comparible to Henry David Thoreau,” and “one of the finest essayists of the 20th century!” And right here, in front of me, were Poems and Sketches of E.B.White and Essays of E.B.White…priced at $3.99 each. Even with my meager budget, I could manage that! I bought both books. That was the beginning.

Those two books were the start of a lifetime of accumulating books. I have a section on my shelves for E.B.White, others for Maxine Hong Kingston, Evan S. Connell and Annie Dillard. They sit among treasured individual books of essays or poetry. I have a nice selection of books on paring-down, cleaning-up, organization and simplification. I don’t believe any of that information applies to books!

E.B.White became – and still holds the position of – one of my most treasured writers. I have read, I think, everything he has written at least twice. His essays about life on a saltwater farm in rural Maine influenced my thoughts on farming, gardening and rural life. “Death of a Pig” is one of my read-aloud favorites. Without E.B.White, I doubt I would have ever ended up out in the country with a big garden, on Beaver Island!

Young & Welchan’s became the first “favorite bookstore” in my life. It taught me what to look for, in a good bookstore. There should be a wide range of books on many subjects, organized so that it’s easy to find an area of interest, and a literate staff to assist when needed. There should be benches and comfortable chairs for browsing…and browsing should not be discouraged. There should be coffee. And the entrance should always have neat piles and rows of good books at amazing prices…to welcome the uninitiated.

 

The Book List

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Today is my day off…kind of.

I have to clean, blanch, package and freeze a dozen quarts of green beans.

I have to bake a few dozen cookies.

There are phone calls and Emails to respond to.

This afternoon I will go make beds and clean floors at the farmhouse.

This evening I have a dinner engagement with family and friends.

May as well start the day quiet and slow, I think.

Over morning coffee and trips to the door to let the dogs out and in, I typed up my list of 62 Life-Altering Books. If you’re interested, you can find it under the “Books” tab.

“Life-altering” seems like a pretty strong term for some of the titles, but it is true in every case.  Often it was a matter of a particular book falling into my hands at just the right time. Perhaps  my my eyes were opened, my thoughts were altered or my ideas clarified. Maybe I learned something entirely new.  Sometimes it was the beginning of a long, on-going relationship with books in general, or with a particular author or field of study. The cookbooks I mention here are only a sampling of the ones I own and enjoy. The same for gardening and lifestyle books. I have gone on to read every single book by Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston and Barbara Kingsolver, so the entries that made the list are only my favorite or most memorable.

I can already think of several books that should have made the list but didn’t.

Ah, well.

Putting it together brought back lots of memories.

Memories often lead to stories, don’t they? Here is one:

When I was a young mother living out in the country in a tiny cottage near a lake, my husband brought home The Exorcist. It was a brand new title, on several best-seller lists and getting a lot of press coverage. “Don’t read it…” I warned him, “too scary!” He laughed. Not having been raised in the Catholic faith, as I had been, it didn’t seem as real, as possible or as terrifying to him. He read it. “I will never read it,” I assured him.

When I married my husband Terry, he was in a band. It was pretty common back in the seventies for a few guys to get together and form a group, especially if one or more members could play an instrument. Terry and his cousin, Steve, both played guitar and sang. That was plenty reason enough to start up a band. It consisted of Terry, Steve and whoever else was around and interested. They got together once or twice a week to practice and to drink.

They never got any actual “gigs” so the “band” element kind of faded to the background. By the time my first daughter was born and we’d moved to the lake cottage, it was basically just a routine of Terry taking his guitar and going out drinking with the guys. Terry would leave right after supper – or sometimes even directly from work – and not get home until the bars closed. Shit-faced drunk.

Leaving me at home alone with an infant, no telephone, no car and no adult companionship. At least once a week.

It always resulted in a big argument which usually lasted over several days. It always ended with him swearing that he was finished with the band, done with going out with the guys, and that he’d quit drinking.

That lasted until the weekend.

The next argument was accelerated by the fact that he’d not only gone out drinking, but had broken his promise to me.

It amazes me to look back and know that this pattern of behaviors – on both of our parts – went on for years.

Anyway, one night after dinner, when we were young parents living in the country, Terry started telling me that Steve had a friend who played drums, and they wanted to just get together and see what they could do, music-wise, and he wouldn’t be late and he didn’t even think there would be beer there…and I said, “Sure, right, I’ve heard it all before,” and then the threat, “I swear, if you go, I’m going to read The Exorcist!”

“Don’t you dare…you can’t handle it!”

“Try me!”

He left.

I put the baby to bed, and read The Exorcist, cover to cover.

When Terry came home, sometime after 2AM, I was laying under the covers with my eyes wide open, with every single light in the house on, absolutely terrified.

Which he thought was completely hilarious, and which took the starch out of our usual battle.

He didn’t let it go, though. He continued teasing me, knowing how the story haunted me.

I plotted my revenge.

One particularly scary part had been the appearance of stigmata, as a sign from the devil.

One day, when Terry was relaxing after his shower in a pair of bib overhauls (it was the seventies, after all), I looked, alarmed, at his chest where there were a series of grommets and buttonholes on the front placket.

“What??”

“That wasn’t there before,” I said, pointing to one of the buttonholes.

“Oh, it was, too.” he said, “how else would it get there?”

“I don’t know…but remember that story…?”

He got a nervous look, but we let it go.

The next week, after laundry day, there was a new eyelet on the front placket.

I stared at it until he noticed, then just shook my head and walked away.

Two weeks later, there was a new buttonhole (that I stitched by hand, one night when he was out “with the band”)on the front.

When he put the bibs on, my eyes got wide. “Terry, that is new, I know it! What the hell?!”

When he looked, his eyes took on a look of terror. What followed is what his daughters and I have come to call a “Terry fit” with cursing and pounding walls and raging. He tore off the bib overhauls. I think he was prepared to burn them, until he caught the look on my face.

“Gotcha!”

He never teased me about The Exorcist again!