There’s not much which makes me cry anymore. In over half a century I’ve seen and lived through enough to dry up that emotional spring which used to flow so readily when I was younger. Now it’s only occasionally that my eyes blur for a moment before I turn away. The world is too big and every day it’s in my living room and brings with it all the horrors and sadness gleaned from every corner of the planet. Each morning, I turn off my television right after a short glimpse of the daily news and focus on the huge white orchid I’m nurturing in my front window. I stroke its crystalline petals and see God contained within its gently curving lip. And allow myself a moment of beauty and peace.
But today I cried. Standing in the middle of the lawn outside the Hawaii Public Library.
I had gathered together two boxes of books to donate to annual book sale. When I arrived, I found a half dozen tents arrayed on the grass outside the building and volunteers were already at their posts, shouting “Aloha” as they accepted cartons of books. They whirled around quickly to drop the boxes on tables behind them where another cadre of helpers were busily sorting them.
“Mahalo nui loa … thanks so much for your donation,“ cooed a lady wearing a haku lei around her head like a halo of pink and purple blossoms. She handed me a little card which read “Mahalo” and pointed me towards a large table near the entrance to the Library. “If you’d like to pick out a book for yourself, please just give this card to the lady over there. It’s complimentary.”
For a moment, I was amused by the idea that having scoured my home to clear out a couple of years of accumulated books to donate to the library, I was now being encouraged to pick up even more books! I had enough trouble averting my head from bookstores, let alone being offered a free book from a huge and tantalizing stack.
I glanced at the table. It was piled with books and at least a dozen boxes overflowing with more were shoring up its legs. Ooh la la. The temptation to excavate was too much and I sauntered over. Just for a look, I told myself. Just a quick peek.
There’s something about a random collection of books which somehow renders them much more interesting than they appear when displayed neatly on shelves labeled with their appropriate genre or subject. .
This pile was superb. Most of them were hardbacks and some of them were very old with tattered leather covers. I rooted around enthusiastically like a pig sniffing out truffles, pulling some of them out from underneath the mound and arranging them on the side of the table. Suddenly I spotted a lovely maroon leather cover and a flash of gold embossing. I lifted it out and felt my heart contract.
I ran my hand over the cover, fingering the slightly indented letters. And then the tears came.
Nearly fifty years ago, I had propped up one of those Books of Knowledge against my knees, as I curled up in a nest of cushions filched from Mom’s living room sofa and arranged under the laundry lines in the basement. The basement was my refuge. I could hide there for hours with my books and escape my sisters and most parental interruptions. And explore the world contained in the pages of these magical books..
It was a world my mother was determined I would learn about. And she would lay aside one of her cherished dreams to make sure I that I got that chance.
When I turned six, my father decided it was time to move out of the tiny little studio apartment on Mentana Street where Mom and he had settled shortly after I was born. There had been a shortage of housing in Montreal at that time and they had been required to purchase the furniture before they could sign the rental lease. And even then, they had felt they were very lucky.
Now the reality of two children sleeping in a crib and on a cot pushed back to back in the hallway between the main room and the kitchen was proving too much for my mother. Who had to either climb over her children’s bedding or go through the kitchen to reach the bathroom. There was no doubt about it, the apartment was snug for two people but for a family it could only be generously described as miniscule.
And there were two other factors which my father felt made a move to a more upscale community. One was schooling. I was due to start the first grade in three months and my father wanted me to have the best education possible. A private school was out of the question, since he was still working his way up the ladder at Trans-Canada Airlines, which was also in its fledgling stages. But if he could find someway to buy a house in the Town of Mount Royal, his daughter would go to Dunrae Gardens School and be assured of a good start in life.
The search began. Every weekend, my mother, my baby sister and I would climb into Dad’s treasured new Meteor sedan and we’d all set out on the “house hunting” expedition. I found it intolerably boring.
Finally a house was found. It was a very modest duplex on the far side of the Town of Mount Royal, which by virtue of being a single block inside the town limits, gave me the right to attend that prestigious school. One block east would have put us in Park Extension, which was a solidly working class neighborhood, almost identical to the one which we were leaving behind. The most attractive feature of our new home was a tiny but exceptionally well-landscaped garden which included a rare “black” lilac tree.
The garden sealed the deal for my parents. Because apart from a good school, the second factor which motivated our move was a loving father’s wish for his eldest daughter to have a garden, no matter how small. Because I had a passion for flowers. I had no concept of what constituted a weed. Anything with petals was a flower in my mind. And I gathered my rustic blossoms from the empty lot across the road and filled every jar or glass I could find in the house.
There would no longer be endless jars filled with weeds strewn all over the room and his little girl’s hands would no longer be stained black with dandelion sap. My father would fill that little plot of land with tulips especially imported from Holland and rose bushes with wonderful names. He would give me a pair of tiny scissors so I could pluck myself a single rose or make a nosegay of violets and sweet-william.
We arrived at our new home late at night, after Dad and the movers had arranged our furniture and stacked dozens of cartons in the little sunroom at the back. It was pitch black but I had to go into the garden to pick my first rose. Dad stood on the steps of the back porch and shone a flashlight onto the lawn while I sped across the wet grass to choose a blossom. And then he watched me squealing with joy I ran back into the circle of light with a huge fragrant rose pressed to my nose.
I was in heaven.
The next few weeks were spent settling in. My sister and I had a whole room to ourselves and she graduated from a crib to a twin bed just like mine. Mom repainted the kitchen a wonderful bright yellow and put little fruit decals on the wall above the sink. The house seemed to throb with activity, with Mom adding wonderful new decorative touches almost daily.
“Oh I love this house”, she said several times a day as she spun around from one room to the next, with her eyes dancing. “Oh I’ll give the most wonderful dinner parties here.” She seemed unaware that the dining room dimensions were considerably short of what constituted a banquet hall. But in her mind, she magnified the delicate chandelier which hung above the table to a size only slightly more modest that those at the Palace of Versailles. And already the glow of candles and sparkle of crystal was taking over her imagination and claiming reality.
Someday she would start entertaining. In a year or two, when I had settled into my new school and my sister was old enough for kindergarten. She would throw grand parties just like her mother had done before the war. In more gracious times.
When I was in the third grade, she began earnestly planning her return to hosting elegant dinners with exquisitely prepared food and nice wines. She blinded herself nicely to the reality of her small dining room in a very modest duplex. She would overcome everything with style and grace. Nothing daunted her nor dampened her enthusiasm.
Except for the dining room chairs.
The chairs were dark, dingy and old. They had been part of the furnishings Mom and Dad had brought three years earlier from the Mentana apartment. Originally they had been quite acceptable but two children’s sticky fingers had gradually darkened their wooden frames and the upholstery had faded and was frayed at the edges of the seats. From time to time, Mom had clipped the shredding threads and applied her own blended palette of red and blue food coloring on the scratches, a process which amazed me as the two dyes magically combined to produce brown.
Then she would rub the wood vigorously with lemon oil, stand back and say ” There … almost like new.” And be quite content with them.
But now every time she looked at those chairs, they seemed to glare at her reproachfully, challenging her dreams of formal dining. No amount of whimsical imagining could transform them into what she saw in her mind. It was clear that food coloring and lemon oil would not suffice.
So Mom launched a secret campaign to replace those chairs. Which she was forced to share with me after I found her stuffing a handful of bills into an ugly bear-shaped vase which she’d banished to the top of the kitchen cupboard. She stood there on a tiny step-ladder and looked guiltily around when I came into the kitchen for an after-school snack.
“It’s a secret, ” she told me, putting her finger over her lips in the familiar code. “I’m saving for some brand new chairs so we can have parties ! ” With a child’s unwavering view of its position in the Universe, I assumed she was talking about birthday parties. Mine in particular.
For a couple of weeks, I constantly requested updates on the position of her chair fund, blithely unaware of the fact that money didn’t sprout from the depth of her purse and yield a daily harvest of coins and small bills. No. She had to save very carefully … a little change left over after a trip to the market, a dollar here and there carefully folded and pushed into the bear vase on top of the cupboard. Stealthily, because she knew father would not approve of household money being diverted to a luxury which at that time wasn’t on his priority list.
But after a month or so, my interest in the apparently sluggish movement of her chair fund waned and petered out to only a rare inquiry. The daily adventures of school were just too much competition for such a static savings project.
Mother, however remained undaunted. Over many months, it became more and more difficult to squeeze each newly saved bill into the vase and she’d finally commandeered one of Dad’s ash trays for her salvaged coins. Finally one day, she reached her goal. And was so delighted she couldn’t wait to share the news with me one afternoon as soon as I got home from school.
“We did it! We’ve got enough for the chairs,” she announced, with her eyes sparkling. She did a little Irish jig across the kitchen floor, switching her apron from side to side in tandem with her feet. She’d said “we” and that gave me a little conspiratorial thrill. Mom and I had saved for the new chairs. I gleefully jigged as best I could right along with her.
But as we danced around the kitchen, neither of us had any idea that those new chairs would wait for almost ten years. That something else much more important would claim those carefully hoarded bills in the little bear vase. Something which would open a door for me and guide me into a world where fancy new dining chairs were only peripheral.
Barely a week after the chair fund goal had been reached, I came home from school one afternoon, to find Mom waiting for me on the front steps. She jumped up as soon as I rounded the corner and began motioning me to come quickly, hopping up and down and waving her arms like windmills. As I dashed across the lawn, the only thing I could think of which would engender such enthusiasm would be the new chairs. The chairs we had saved for.
“Come dear … quickly. I have the most wonderful surprise for you.” She dropped a fast kiss on my forehead and propelled me into the living room. There arranged on the coffee table was a row of books. About twenty or so. Big books with fancy gold lettering on their leather covers. Grown-up books. Like the ones in Dad’s room which Mom said were his lawyer’s books and which I was forbidden to touch.
“These are the Books of Knowledge …”
Mom stood back and looked at the volumes almost reverently.
“When I was a little girl,’ she said, ” only one of my mother’s friends had these wonderful books. I used to wait until she went over to Mrs. Murphy’s house for coffee and I’d beg to come along so I could read the Books of Knowledge. Mrs. Murphy would take one book down from the library shelf …. only one … and then settle me down at a little table. She’d wipe my hands and warn me to wait until I was finished reading to ask for my cookies and milk.
But I hardly ever remember my snack. I used to wish I could just stay forever at that little table and read all of those books, one by one. Every one of them. And every page.”
Mother picked up one of the books and handed it to me. ” Now you can read them all, whenever you want. Oh there are so many wonderful things to learn. Different countries and strange animals and why things work the way they do. Everything you can think of …”
She ran her hands over the cover and shook her head a little ruefully, although I didn’t realize why at the time. ” I just couldn’t resist. I couldn’t. The Grolier salesman came by this afternoon and he was selling encyclopedias and he had … the Books of Knowledge …”
Mom was clearly more enthusiastic than I was. I was expecting the new chairs. I wasn’t particularly interesting in reading unless it was Mother reading a bedtime story to me. I couldn’t understand why she was so ecstatic over those books, even though they looked very impressive with their dark leather covers and rich golden lettering.
Until she settled me next to her on the sofa and opened one of the Books of Knowledge. She thumbed through until she reached one of the delicately engraved colored plates showing the world’s most gorgeous butterflies. There was a tiny one barely the size of a pea and a huge black and orange one which spanned the top of the page. I leaned over the illustration and picked out the complicated Latin names. Then Mom turned a few pages and there was a diagram of all the parts of a flower. So many more parts than just “petals” and the “center”.
By dinner time, I was splayed out on the floor in what became a favored reading position. Mom insisted I open only one book at a time and not strew them all around me. But allowed limitless browsing by placing the whole set on the lowest shelf of her display cabinet, which was pressed into service as a mini library.
I was so entranced with the Books of Knowledge that it must have been several weeks before I thought about Mom’s dining room chairs. When I finally asked her about her chair fund, she fluttered her hands a bit and murmured something about “not really needing new chairs right now ….” And no more was said.
But I noticed that the little bear cup was no longer on top of the kitchen cupboard.
Several months passed and one day Mother announced that she was going to have a dinner party that Saturday. The garden was at its peak and she said Dad wanted to show off his collection of tulips. She was resuscitating her own mother’s recipe for something she called “lemon snow”, which was an elaborate torte consisting of layers of fluffy meringue piled over various fruit fillings. And of course, she would at last fulfil her dream of a formal “sit-down” dinner.
The kitchen throbbed with activity as Mom whirled from stove to mixing bowls, dashing into the dining room at intervals to check her “company” china and the silverware which hadn’t been removed from the cedar box since her wedding over ten years ago. The linens had to be dampened and ironed since they had become wrinkled after a decade in the bottom of a drawer and the table had to be oiled too. She didn’t mention the chairs.
Finally all was ready. My sister and I were given an early supper. In those days children weren’t included in adult dinners and were expected to keep out of sight after a brief introduction to all the guests. But we got to wear our party clothes for our brief moment in adult society.
Sissy and I took a fast tour of the house, moments before the door bell rang to announce the first guest. As I looked at the dining table with a fresh bouquet of flowers perfectly centered in the middle, I noticed something on the six old chairs. A single volume from the Books of Knowledge had been carefully placed on each of their their frayed seats.
And I suddenly realized what had happened to Mom’s chair fund. That she had substituted her dream to give me the greatest gift a mother could give her child … not only the knowledge contained in these remarkable books but the knowledge of her love for me.
* And I like to think she also offered a lesson in values to her guests when she explained away her shabby chairs with the Book of Knowledge she had placed on each one of them.