My husband adores old books every bit as much as I do. Someday, I fear, the very rafters of our house will bulge with loved acquisitions. But even he looked askance at some of the derelict volumes I carted home from the dispersal of my grandmother’s house. Ex-libraries, with yellowed pages soft from use and split spines and frayed corners. Heavily-taped tomes whose hand-written titles were barely legible. Water-marked and sun-bleached. But I simply couldn’t leave them behind. Passing them by with an armload of gorgeous, well-kept, stately old books I felt a pang of guilt, and would invariably stop and add a few more to my already teetering pile.
“We’re not running a half-way house for wayward books,” he reminded me with a grin. I nodded agreement. But these were no ordinary cast-offs. All of the flyleaves were inscribed with the familiar scrawl of my great-grandmother, Lena Mae. Most of them bore a penciled note as well of the date (or dates) of reading, and perhaps a few page numbers of particularly esteemed passages. These were her books, her foster children, as it were. These she had rescued from rubbish heaps and library purgings and given a place of honor among the fine and beautiful ones that already filled her shelves.
Her family said of her that she believed there was never a boy or a book that was beyond help. Having lost her only son at the age of nine she was known all her life for her fierce tenderness towards the male race, pampering the boy grandchildren with a delightful shamelessness. But she was equally shameless in her defense of books. In her mind it was a mortal sin to throw away a book, right up there with dancing and playing cards on Sundays. Books that had fallen on hard times were no more to be censured than a genuine lady or gentleman of reduced means. If the message housed between the covers was still legible—and worthy to begin with—then it found safe refuge with her.
Looking over her cherished books—and I have many of them now, not only such orphans of the storm, but lovely poetry and gilt-edged novels and college textbooks—I am struck anew with the living personality of this woman I am so proud to call my great-grandmother. Though I never knew her, the legend of Lena Mae’s indomitable zeal to enhance and improve the lives around her is as vivid to me as if I had read it in one of these volumes she unknowingly left to me. And no method of improvement seemed so effective to her as the art of reading. Whether it was her marked and worn Bible, or the newest Grace Livingston Hill, or a treatise on the periods and characteristics of antique furniture, Lena Mae was seldom seen without a book close at hand.
Almost fifty years after her death my great-grandmother is remembered with fond respect in a bustling little Southern city that still bears the obvious traces of her loving industry—not the least of which is our library itself. From a humble beginning in an old house on A—– Road to a posthumous dedication of a room named in her honor in the new city library, Lena Mae was the very heartbeat of the vision to bring the pleasures of reading to the whole community.
But she didn’t limit herself to merely such large-scale undertakings. After her girls were married and gone, she turned what was once the front bedroom of their house on Love Street into a library of her own. With beautifully-carved walnut cases lining three of the walls—themselves refugees from a fire in a neighboring drug store—and a massive bust of George Washington presiding benevolently over all she created her own little sanctuary of reading and refreshment. The aforementioned urchins ranged alongside her prized Shakespeare collection. The Poor Little Rich Girl sidled up to Ben Hur; Sir Walter Scott rubbed shoulders with Thornton Burgess. All of these were at the disposal of her many friends; and she leant them with the same grace with which she set an extra place at the table every Sunday and made room for the extra young girl that was invariably living with them. (“Come home with me,” Aunt Sara told a little classmate one day who had lost her mother to illness. “Mamma’ll let you live with us.” And she did, of course. Though not a ‘boy’ or a ‘book’, orphaned little girls had a sure claim on Lena Mae’s tender mercies.)
In a day when few young women received a higher education, my great-grandmother left her home in S—– at the age of sixteen and entered Young Harris College in the mountains of north Georgia. Accessible at times only by ox carts which alone could traverse the winding, muddy roads, Young Harris was started by a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in the 1880’s, and was well-established as a liberal arts school when Lena Mae entered in 1904. She distinguished herself with an unquenchable passion for literature and poetry as well as a position on the renowned debate team. I love thumbing through her textbooks, coming across notes from a lecture on foreign policy or poetic structure. But most of all I love the old photographs we have of her college days, such a bright-eyed lass with high-piled hair and a twinkle in her eye every bit as disarming as Anne Shirley’s! I think I feel closest to her in these dim, time-darkened pictures. I can almost feel the flush of her optimism, her rose-tinted hopes for the future—both her own and that of children yet to be born.
Life had such joy in store for Lena Mae. An elopement with her true love which led to a marriage of devotion that lasted over sixty years. Three beautiful daughters and a home that rang with their laughter and high spirits. A community that loved her as much as her boundless heart loved it.
But there were devastating blows, as well, bolts from the blue: she lost her first little daughter to meningitis; years later typhoid took her beloved son and father and endangered the rest of the family when my grandmother was an infant. You can almost see a shadow cross the kind brown eyes in the photographs from this time, a slight sad droop to the ready smile. Yet even as she staggered beneath such providences she acknowledged them as the ministrations of a loving God. And not once did she turn her eyes from the needs of those around her. Her own sorrows only seemed to make her that much more aware of the hurts of her friends and neighbors. She struggled along with everyone else to make ends meet during the Depression, but her children never knew anything but safety and comfort, though a line of hoboes beat a constant track to her back door. Even after times got better, my great-grandfather would often come home from work to find that his best suit had been given away—yet again—as some poverty-stricken member of the community had died with nothing to be ‘laid out’ in.
And, as always, after bodily needs and spiritual needs had been tended to, she ever sought the betterment of the soul by way of great literature. Her adoration of Shakespeare became a family by-word. When her children were small, she started a Shakespeare Club for the ladies of S-
—- to read and discuss his plays. I can picture them all now, in their black brocade dresses and pearls, sitting primly in the Green parlor tossing about such grandiloquent phrases as O for a Muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention! or May the worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul! in genteel Southern drawls. Lena Mae’s devotion to the immortal bard was a sacred thing, almost a family treasure—as a child, my mother was dismayed to find that ‘Uncle Will’ was not her uncle at all, not even a tenuous relation, much as the friendly reverence offered towards his memory otherwise implied.
Someday when my own children ask for something good to read I’ll pull down one of those ragged old volumes of Lena Mae’s. I’ll tell them of the great lady they belonged to, and of all of the other little children who have read and loved them before. And I’ll whisper a silent prayer that this blessed heritage will work its influence yet again on young hearts and minds.
originally published in Inkblots Literary Magazine