Thursday, November 19, 2009

Its In The Bag

I just got back from The Big Book Sale at the library, and although I plan to take a nice little picture of my stack as "show and tell," here's how the morning went down.

Unfortunately, because I have a meeting at 1:00 p.m. (which has now been pushed back an hour), I had to wear something professional, i.e. a suit. Not my original plan, but the shoes are the thing. Those are easy to change, and besides, I have more shoes under my desk than I do in my closet at home. I tend to pad around barefoot in my office or in bedroom slippers, so no dressy type heels for TBBS.

I brought two black canvas bags that I use to carry home my groceries. Each has a little zippered pocket sewn inside - a perfect place to carry the necessary cash. They are deep enough to hold my glasses. That was a good thing since I forgot to buy a "granny chain."

At approximately 9:45 a.m., I set out (sans purse) with my two black bags and walked the two blocks to the library - no parking woes; so far so good - and found myself 16th in line. Also good. While the minutes ticked away, I glanced through the latest copy of Book Pages and periodically looked down the line that was forming hoping to see my old gentleman friend. Of course, I might not have recognized him had I seen him, but I was a little disappointed to be honest. Then at precisely 10:00 a.m., the double doors to the room were opened and we filed in. It was a much much smaller crowd this time, and there was no getting swept up in a sea of humanity. Oddly, the frenzy of last time added to the excitement. The crowd was a mixed bag of all ages and ethnicities - all united in the love of a good (and cheap) book.

My first stop was the cookbook table. Standing at the table was a very professor-ish looking fellow with a neat, short gray beard wearing a turtleneck sweater. All he needed was a pipe and beige corduroy jacket with leather buttons to fit into a stereotype of some sort. Of course, I don't know if he was a professor (BUT our world-famous art college has an academic building right next door to the library, so....) He was very dishy. "Dream big," say I to myself. Anyway, just as I reached down to pick up Lidia's Family Table by Lidia Bastianich his hand lighted on the same spine and we both pulled our hands back, and smiled at each other shyly.

"Go ahead," I said.

"No, no. I think you saw it first," says the dreamboat.

"No...really," said I.

He paused a second and looked deeply (or so I say) into my eyes. I tried to remember if I had refreshed my lipstick before I left the office. A little color is needed after a certain age. And as I was trying to mentally assess my appearance, he spoke.

"How important is this book to you?" He was smiling.

"Not very. How important is this book to you?," say I. (That's right, work the room Grad, a little voice says. I may have batted my eyelashes here, but I would hate to admit as much.)

"Not important at all. So you win..."

okay, here it comes - brace yourself

"...Ma'am." MA'AM??? Did that dude just call me Ma'am? That gray beardy dude?

"Yeah...well, thanks," I sniffed and shoved the damn book into my bag - my first grab. I wanted to shout, "And furthermore I bet you're not really a professor at all, so stop trying to pretend!" But I didn't. Poor fellow. I imagine he was left wondering what he could have done to offend the little old lady in the black suit with her pince-nez falling off the tip of her nose.

But the cookbook table was not a waste of time. I picked up my fill (including one by Jamie Oliver) and moved on to adult fiction. This was the most difficult area to wade through. Not only were books on the tables, they were under the tables as I expected. With my new (black) suit, it was best that I not kneel. Bending at the waist with my bum sticking out similarly didn't work for obvious reasons (small aisles and ample bum). Not to mention the fear of having my back go out and being stuck like that for days...and the problem posed by walking back two blocks dragging the bags of books on the sidewalk like a Neanderthal. Squatting was dangerous as I was not at all sure I could get up. Unless I could see the title clearly from an upright position, the bottom books were basically off limits. But I did pick up one from below - The Poisonwood Bible. Now, I wasn't going to go after it at first, but as soon as I lifted it out of a box a woman came up to me and said, "I loved that book. But it's so sad." Okay, you had me at first but now I'm not so sure. And then a second woman came up and said, "You have to read that book. I love that book." In the bag it went, not so much because I really wanted it, but I was very reluctant to disappoint these two ladies by not taking their recommendations. I probably could have sneaked it back into the box, but why take the risk of offending? After all, we're only talking $1.00.

After about 45 minutes I found myself not looking at the books so much, but listening to the conversations of the people who were there. One lady, obviously a teacher, was telling another lady, "I'm taking these back to my classroom. This is a great opportunity for me to get books that the kids want to read." A man and a woman arrived with post office bins on a hand cart in which they were grabbing armloads of volumes. In the bins they had children's books, and mysteries, fiction, and who knows what else, which they were taking to a shelter. A mother was saying to her little girl, "Which ones do you like? Which ones will you choose?" And her daughter's eyes were as large as saucers at the prospect. The kids' books were .50, so she could have as many as she could hold.

The one thing that I've noticed about The Big Book Sale (now that I am no longer a novice) is that the people who go there are just plain nice. There seems to be an effort to wait your turn, to stand back after awhile and allow someone else to get to the stack in front of you. There were a lot of "pleases" and "thank yous" (which, to be honest, are pretty typical for the South, so not a real surprise). There was no pushing, no shoving. The whole room shouted, "God Bless You," when someone sneezed. And, except for that one grizzly, old broad in a black suit with pince-nez perched on the end of her nose who had been standing at the cookbook table, everyone behaved themselves.

As I made my way to checkout, I spotted The Mitford Bedside Companion by Jan Karon. I thought I might have read someone blog about that one but I couldn't remember. It became my last grab.

Final tally (not sure how many books - I'll have to unpack when I get home) was $12.50.

Oh, and as I walked back to the office I passed several real professors on their way into the building next door. Male art professors, no doubt. I could not repress a smug smile as I watched. They all wore a turtleneck sweater, all wore either a tweed or plaid a jacket, and all carried books under one of their arms. Not one of them was smiling. There's poetic justice there...somewhere.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gearing Up For The Big Book Sale

The time has come at last - I am giddy with excitement! On Thursday, November 19 at 10:00 a.m. the main library is once again having The Big Book Sale. Even better news...after my old firm merged with the new one I now work only one block away from the main library. I don't have to get into the car and drive for miles and fight for a parking space blocks and blocks away. I was a neophyte at the last big book sale and I came ill equipped, i.e. uncomfortable shoes, nothing in which to tote the books, and I had not practiced bending and getting up (not a small consideration for a woman "of a certain age.")

I learned to arrive early, with something to read to pass the time. However, there was such a friendly crowd last time that I found myself having a very pleasant conversation with the elderly gentleman standing in front of me regarding the virtues of Johnny Mercer's song lyrics. He was the one who told me, "You should have brought a bag to tote your books home, young lady." I seldom use the word "tote," it's such a southern expression, I thought him simply charming. The fact he called me "young" didn't hurt either.

When the big double doors were opened to the room where the big book sale was being held, I simply let myself get swept along with the tide. I landed at the cookbook table and my first grab was the huge and heavy "The Way To Cook" by Julia Child. A $50 book that I bought for $1. All hardbound books were $1 and all paperbacks were .50. Since I didn't have a tote, my purchases were limited to what I could carry (although when I got to the cashier, I was given some plastic grocery bags). This year I will be armed with my canvas grocery shopping bags emblazoned with Kroger or Publix - each strong enough to hold a huge frozen Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings and, so I figure, up to the job.

I still have to train, however. Many of the best books are in boxes on the floor and one must get down and dirty, and then be able to stand up. I don't have a lot of time to work out, but some squats are in order for the next few days. Experience has also taught me not to carry a purse. It gets in the way and I am absent minded enough to set it down and lose track of it. I think a jacket with a zippered pocket for the cash, my glasses on a chain, and my hair secured in a pony-tail are precautions which will work well for me.

I wonder what treasures await. I already feel the thrill of the hunt - like one of the big cats in the wild, stalking its prey - sniffing the air with nostrils flaring, low steady breathing, ears upright and listening, careful deliberate cautious steps. Of course, I am from the big city and know little of the big cats in the wild. For all I know, I may have just described a bovine chewing its cud in some sunny pasture. The point is...they are out there...perhaps being set by classification on and under tables right this very minute. Just a block away from where I now sit. Cookbooks and thrillers, poetry and home improvement, fiction and autobiography. Where will this year's tide take me (and believe me, one DOES get swept along with the sea of humanity that invades the big book sale) I wonder. My hands itch at the thought.

Thanksgiving turkey AND the Big Book Sale all in the same month. Life is good.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Going Gray

There is something about the autumn light this year. It seems so steely gray, perhaps reflective of my current mood. Or could it be the residual effects of Hurricane Ida, which is roiling around in the Gulf? I hear she is to work her way north and then east, grazing Savannah. Maybe there is a scientific explanation after all. Nevertheless, I have memories of a more rosy-golden Fall light. Of course, now that I think of it, I have rosy-golden memories of just about everything. I could ask myself if I remember only what I choose to remember. Is it a control thing? "I think therefore it was." Perhaps that should worry me a bit, but that is basically my outlook so I will have to embrace it.

Feeling befuddled and not in control is just not my style. In such a state, there is only one place to turn...the house. I was standing in my Nantucket Gray kitchen the other morning musing over how lovely the color looks late in the morning. Connected to the kitchen and breakfast room by a large doorless entry is my sunroom with more windows than walls (as the name "sunroom" would suggest). The focal point of the sunroom is a large, arched window which rises from practically the top of the ceiling (pretentiously called a "cathedral ceiling" - although if it really were in a cathedral it would be a very puny cathedral indeed) - almost to the floor. At present, the room is painted in "Magnolia Petals," a sort of blush - not quite pink and not quite peach and not white - a pinky blush is the best I can describe. It's the color of the inside of the magnolia flower near the stamen - hence the name, I imagine. Across the room from the arched window is a set of white double doors made of paned glass that lead into the library (which is what is was called on the blueprints. I seldom refer to it as the library since it also sounds pretentious. I usually call it "the room with the bookshelves." Somehow, Lindy from the southside of Chicago would not have a "library" in her house). It sounds all right so far; but, here is where it gets rather ghastly. Around the big wall of windows, arch and all, and around the double doors, I long ago stenciled a garland of magnolia blossoms. (You know, to tie in with the name of the wall paint. How clever of me!) I warn you, it gets worse. At the top of the windowed arch, and over the other door in the room - the one that leads onto the patio - I stenciled pale green bows with flowing tendrils. It was 1989 and the model home I saw in the subdivision was likewise painted. I thought it was stunning, and it probably 1989. You would think that raising 3 rambunctious kids in the house would have ruined the "Magnolia Petals," but an upstairs playroom and seasonal wall washing has kept everything remarkably intact. So let's fast forward to 2009. The sunroom is now a relic of bad taste. I think it is time to sand down the magnolia petals and paint over the "Magnolia Petals" and go Nantucket Gray all the way.

In a completely coincidental happenstance, my sister, my eldest son and my grandson will all be coming into Savannah tonight - for different reasons. John is leaving for Afghanistan in a week and he and Jayden are coming home...home to spend some family time. I'll get to perch him (the baby, that is, not John) on my lap and read the library books I have for him. Judi is coming to check on Shorty - who is getting extremely forgetful and drives her car like a bat out of hell. If I'm lucky, I can get Judi to install my new kitchen faucet. (One day I'll have to tell you about all the things she can do.) With all that, the magnolia petals will bloom another week. Their days are numbered, however, and on Sunday I will be off to ACE Hardware to get a couple of gallons of Benjamin Moore's Nantucket Gray.

I'm giving Katharine a treat for Thanksgiving - a week in Chicago with her beloved Uncle Rudy. She was only 4 years old when we moved away and does not remember anything of that wonderful place where she was born. Rudy's boys, who seemed so much younger than she when they were young, are now her contemporaries and friends aside from being her cousins. Strange how a few years separating people in childhood melt away in adulthood. She will be in very good and gentle hands, and has been happier than I've seen her in some time. It will be hard not having her here, the first holiday we've spent away from each other. Nevertheless, she will return home with great stories to tell. And as for me, after dinner at Shorty's with the family that remains, I will be able to spend a very long Thanksgiving weekend with Benjamin Moore - with whom I am quite smitten.

Have I told you how much I love the hardware store on the island? I have often thought of challenging myself to do all my Christmas shopping without leaving the island. I could probably do it all at the hardware store. Aside from a bookstore, it is like heaven on earth.

It will be good to be back at the hardware store. It will restore a sense of normalcy in a very abnormal couple of months. I'm looking forward to turning my attention to the house once again. It needs nurturing. It needs to know I love it because this is where my memories live. It needs to know that, no matter where I am, it will always be home. to "love" it is the best of all words.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Year Of Magical Thinking

Before October 1, 2009, I had experienced grief twice in life. Sadness, lonliness, loss - these had been more frequent visitors. But grief...twice. Grief bangs on the door demanding it be opened. And try as we will, there is nothing to be done but to allow it entry.

Life changes fast,

Life changes in the instant,

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,

The question of self-pity.

With those words, Joan Didion begins her memoir The Year Of Magical Thinking, a journey of grief which began with the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the concurrent grave (and subsequently fatal) illness of their only child. In her simple, clear and yet poetic prose, Didion draws the reader into her private world. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle correctly stated that Didion's journey was both personal and universal. I will leave it to those who use words for a living to fully review it. To me it was, simply put, beautiful. In Didion's words I found shared thoughts and feelings and movements. "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," she cautions.

When grief came calling, I longed for the image in the Superman movie. The scene where he flies up into space, and races around the planet at such speed that he reverses the spin of the earth and turns back time. If that could only happen, I told myself, I could change everything. Maybe I could control how things turned out. I would have a chance to fix it.

I could have another chance. I could, for instance, decide not to dive into my friend's swimming pool. Afterward, when the doctor told me I needed bed rest I wondered about that day -- about diving into the pool. Was that the fatal moment? The thought of it tormented me. He also told me not to read books about problem pregnancies. I wondered how he knew. Had my husband told him about my obsession? And so I laid in bed, my contraband reading material my constant companion. And when it happened, it happened so fast there wasn't time for anything. No time for an ambulance, no time for monitors, no time for anything. Medical records I read later noted my emotional state as a "flat effect." "Flat effect." Like a deflated balloon or a tire that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. That pretty much summed it up. I grieved in silence; no drama. It was not that I wanted to die, I just didn't care if I lived. A flat effect...for as long as it took.

Two years before my nephew had died. He was two years old and an outwardly perfect and beautiful child. But the appearance belied the facts. We were told early on. We knew. Medical science was working on it and getting close but had not...quite...gotten...there...yet. Soon after he died it did get there. Joan Didion points out how open we are to the persistent belief that we can somehow avert death. If only I had...if only I hadn't.

And then Rob. In the early morning hours of October 15, two weeks after his death, I dreamed I awakened and walked into the hallway outside my room. Rob was standing there with another young man. Rob made a sweeping motion with his hands down his body, toward the floor, and said, "See, Linda, I'm fine. We're both fine!" I looked at the other young man, taller and thinner than Rob. they were both smiling. I threw my arms around Rob's neck and hugged him tightly. I could feel his back - his muscular upper back. I could feel his grip. "I love you, Rob," I said. "I love you too..." And then he said something I will never forget "...and I love Katharine and I can continue to love Katharine through you and through everyone who will ever love her." I stood back and smiled at him. And just that quickly they were gone.

Several days ago, two weeks after my dream, I was looking through a drawer and found a piece of lined notebook paper. Opening it I realized it was a letter to me from Rob written during his next to his last deployment. For a strong man, his handwriting was tiny and delicate. Some words so small they were hard to decipher. It was the sort of letter a young man writes to a mother telling her about the girl he loved. The girl was my daughter. His words were so heartfelt and sincere, they could never be doubted. But what resonated for me were the last few lines. He wrote, "I can't wait to come home and give you a hug. A massive hug." Is that what he did? Or had I stored that snippet of his letter somewhere in my subconscious? Tucked away safely. Was I simply determined to control the one thing...the one thing I could put right?

Near the end of A Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes, "I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year." As the days passed, as winter became summer and then fall, she feared that memories would become clouded; that the instant of her husband's death would became "less raw." She came to realize that we try to keep the dead alive to keep them with us. But she also realized that if we are to live ourselves, we must let go. We must relinquish the dead. We must survive our own days, or months, or years of magical thinking.