In the good old days past recall, we’d send two people each time we picked up someone’s books. This had a number of advantages. If no parking was available, one person could drive around and around the block while the other packed books. Or if parking and/or security was dubious, one person could sit with the vehicle while the other packed books. Or, most often, while one person packed books, the other could talk.
Someone who is giving up a lifetime collection of books has things to say. They’re moving. They’re downsizing. A relative is moving in, to take care of the donor or to be taken care of. But there’s always something to say, because books become more than furniture, if less than family. That red book that’s the third book over on the second shelf has been the third book over on the second shelf since the owner moved in, and the whole world is different once that book is not there, even if it hasn’t been read in thirty years. So one volunteer nods and makes sympathetic noises while the silent partner gets things packed, uninterrupted by the need to nod and make sympathetic noises.
Her name was not Lola, so let’s use that. Macular degeneration was going to take her eyesight by the end of the year and she wanted to see the people carry away her books. (I call this “Old Yeller Syndrome”; it’s my collection, the love of my life, and I will take responsibility for getting rid of it.) How many books, I asked. She wasn’t sure, but they filled a big bookcase that took up a whole wall of her dining room. I called a driving volunteer, collected twenty empty boxes, and set off.
Lola was about four foot six, and her big bookcase was one of those modular ones from the early part of the century: dark wood, glass doors. There were three modules, and the books in them were small. They were reading editions, heavy on poetry and drama. I packed, and Carol, the driver, did the listening and nodding.
You could tell before Lola told us that these were Mamma’s Books. The set of Shakespeare had been on the top shelf since Mamma bought them, around 1919. the collection of Longfellow had been the second book from the right on the second shelf since before my parents were born. These books meant something to Lola. In the days before radio, Lola and her sister sewed or mended in the evenings while Mamma read to them: Shakespeare, Longfellow, Tennyson, Bryant. They were not completely nineteenth century in their tastes. Here were Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke, Ezra Pound. Pound, Lola confessed, had been kind of a struggle, but at least Mamma tried.
This was all Lola had left of those days. Mamma died in the 1950s, and Lola’s sister was gone ten years now: lung cancer. Her sister had married and there was a niece and nephew Lola loved and was loved by, but she said, “These aren’t Mamma’s Books to them. These are just old Auntie Lola’s books, and that’s not the same. I won’t burden them with the books. Sell the books to someone else who’ll read them.”
The books filled six and a half boxes. It would have been six, but a couple of atlases needed separate accommodation. As I worked, Lola talked to Carol, with her back firmly turned to me. At length, though, she realized that I was standing at her elbow.
“May I help you with something?” she asked, turning just a little.
“No, I’m done,” I said. “Unless you have more books somewhere else.”
She whipped around and peered at the empty bookcase. “You’re done! But…that was so quick! It didn’t hurt!”
Carol and I laughed and said we were good at this of work. Lola waved a hand at the bookcase.
“You don’t understand! I was sure it would take an hour or more and I was sure I’d break down and embarrass myself, crying about Mamma’s books! But you’re done!”
We laughed a little more sympathetically, and said that bit about “more than furniture, less than family.”
“You don’t UNDERSTAND!” She threw a hand toward the door of the apartment. “They’re changing the windows in the hallways. One day they take the old ones out, and they put up yellow caution tape and a big sign, and the next day they put in the new ones. They took out the windows on this floor yesterday, and I was so sure I’d break down when you took Mamma’s books that I thought, if I walk out that window to a ten-story drop, no one will ever know. They’d just think poor old Lola, with her eyesight, couldn’t read the signs. And they’d never know. But you’ve been so quick that I think I can go on now.”
That is the heaviest thing I have ever been handed in a Book Fair donation, the idea that something I take for granted, that the job is to get the books as quickly as possible and then get out, would make that much difference.
You may call it the fickle finger of fate, if you like, but Carol was one of these volunteers who have a different volunteer activity for each day of the week, and one of those was the Talking Books program. (This was back in the days when listening to books on tape was limited largely to the blind.) She promised to send Lola some information on the program.
The next time I called on Carol, I had to ask. “Do you remember Lola? Did you get her that Talking Book information?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “She’s got her tape player and the first set she ordered was the Complete Works of Longfellow. She says it’s not quite the way Mamma read it, but she’s enjoying it.”
If it comes to that, I never knew listening to Longfellow would make someone so happy. Learn something new every day in this job.