Children’s books I loved

I have already written about books and how they have always been a major part of my life. My parents loved books. My maternal grandparents, the only grandparents I knew, loved books. My grandmother wrote a book on her life, which was published, and many short stories which were not. My mother, a visual artist, also wrote a published book. Both my father and my grandfather penned several short stories, something I didn’t know until I found their scribblings while sorting through my parent’s house. I spent many hours writing poems, diary entries and even stories for children. One of my stories was illustrated by my mother and we unsuccessfully sent it off to a publisher when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. I grew up surrounded by bookshelves stuffed with a variety of genres, languages, hard and soft covers. Now and again there would be discussions, not whether to buy another bookshelf, but where it would fit.

My mother often read to me before I could understand those squiggly markings on each page. I have vague, sepia memories of watching the pages of Peter Rabbit books and various Golden Books, including “Nurse Nancy”, being turned while I snuggled next to her on our sofa, or in bed. Later memories of listening to “The Little White Horse” by Elizabeth Goudge, or “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, are much clearer. I couldn’t wait until our evening meal was finished and the dishes done because that was when the next chapter would be read.

As I grew older I devoured books. I was a sickly child, more often than not confined to bed, and I spent those days and nights reading. I read all of the Famous Five series and every other book by Enid Blyton. I read all of the Lone Pine Five series by Malcolm Saville. I read the Narnia series, all of the books by Louisa May Alcott and all of the books by E. Nesbit. I was no longer relying on my mother to read to me and I re-read the books we had already perused together.

Books for me were an escape, a window to another world. I was never the most social of children and I was also quite awkward. I was also an only child and most of my parent’s friends were either childless or had children much older than myself, therefore I had to find a way to occupy myself quietly. So I read.

I read quickly. I was an addict. Even when I wasn’t sick I spent much of my time in my bedroom reading.  It was not unusual for me to read ten or twelve books a day. When I had finished every book in a series I craved the next one. My biggest disappointments at the time were finding out my favourite authors had died and were no longer capable of producing books.

Now and again, when chatting with friends, we try to decide which time of our lives we would return to if we could. I don’t even have to think. I would love to go back to the time when I had nothing else to do but read.

Photos and Memories

I’ve been asked if sorting through the mess of belongings, especially photos, my parent’s left behind triggered any memories for me. The answer is yes… and no.

My long term memory is not good. In fact, there are huge chunks of my childhood, teenage years and even young adulthood which I can’t remember. It doesn’t stop there; I find it difficult to remember my children as babies. Most of their childhood is a blank for me. It frustrates me when my friends can remember significant moments of my life which totally elude me.

Sorting through the many, many photographs my parents kept has been a challenge. Most of them have no names, description or date recorded. Many of them were taken on my parent’s drive across USA to the mid-west, or on one or the other of their holidays. They were all taken before I was born so, not only did they not trigger memories for me, they also meant nothing to me. I threw them all out.

Then there were photos which looked like family groups, or perhaps they were close friends. Again, with no idea of who, where or when, I couldn’t tell. I’ve kept those I think might be family and the others were thrown out.

I found so many photos of my parent’s pets. Over the years they had numerous dogs, not quite as many cats and a few birds. I do remember a few of them, but to be honest it is difficult for me to remember them individually, they all tend to meld into one. I was left with photos of dogs in every state you can imagine. There were dogs playing, lying in the garden, eating, sleeping, sitting, standing, running, leaping, eating bones, under trees, next to cars, at doorways, on beaches, on roads, in parks, on beds and on chairs. The cat photos were mostly of them sleeping. I filled two green garbage bags with photos of animals.

I spent a long time looking through the photos my parents kept of me. Most of them were black and white. There I was as a baby, wrapped up and in someone’s arms – my mother’s, my father’s, my grandmother’s, my grandfather’s, their friends’ – a bit like the game “pass the parcel”. There I was again in prams and cots and high chairs, on a rug, in a bath. And more photos of me growing up; kindergarten photos, school photos, birthday parties, dressing up occasions, Christmases and holiday snaps at the beach or a lake or somewhere with snow.

It was a surreal feeling looking through the photos. I could recognise myself and my parents and grandparents, so I understood I had been in all these places, but I just don’t remember any of them. It was as if I was watching a black and white slide show about a seemingly happy family. I was in the slides but I didn’t feel a part of them.

I am trying to get my memories back. I’ve been told it can be done. Perhaps it will be a story for another book.

Books and Memories

Objects do not themselves hold memories however, they can certainly be triggers for remembering moments in time. Books are objects which not only hold memories of their stories, but also of where and when they were read. I found this particularly true when clearing out my father’s house after his death.

My parent’s love of books was demonstrated by the number of bookshelves throughout their house. There was a bookshelf on either side of the front door, four in the living room, two in my mother’s room, three in my father’s room, one in my old bedroom, two in the back hallway and the last in the enclosed sunroom at the back of the house. But not even this amount of bookshelves provided enough space for all of my parent’s books. They were jammed cheek to cheek on the shelves, weighted down with more books on top. Sometimes they were lain horizontally in order to fit more in. The top shelf of each groaned with untidy stacks of the books which hadn’t found room anywhere else.

In the shelf next to her favorite chair I found the set of Peter Rabbit books my mother had brought with us when we immigrated to Australia. She loved the illustrations. I remember when my boys were small and we visited, they would sit on her lap while she read them the tales of Peter Rabbit and his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Next to Peter Rabbit were stacked several of the PG Wodehouse stories my mother enjoyed and beside them a whole series of Georgette Heyer romances. I had read all of them, most often curled on her chair, but sometimes in bed when I was meant to be sleeping.

On the next shelf down my mother kept her books on Russia. “Land of the Firebird” and “Nicholas and Alexandra” amongst many others detailing life before the Russian Revolution. At the far end of the shelf I found “Upheaval”, the book my grandmother wrote about her life in Russia before the Revolution and detailing the way she and my grandfather had to escape during it. I have read it several times and kept enough copies for each of my boys to have one. It always reminds me of the Sunday afternoons I spent in my grandmother’s bedroom listening to stories of her carefree childhood in old Russia.

My father’s book shelves are stacked with books about the second World War as well as literary classics such as “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina”, “Dr Zhivago”, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Gulag Archipelago”. He was always the more serious reader. I have read most of them but not all. His books remind me of the way he would hover over me as I read, making sure I had clean hands and didn’t fold or tear the pages. It was very annoying.

In the shelves along the back hallway my mother kept all of her cookery books. There was an old and well-worn Betty Crocker. When I took it out of the shelf it opened at the page for chocolate brownies, one of our favorite recipes. Next to it was “Katish”, a Russian cookbook with a story. It reminds me of the recipes we attempted, some of which succeeded and some of which were dismal failures. There are also several books on cooking without sugar and cooking for a healthy lifestyle, indicating my mother’s struggle with late onset diabetes.

Books have always been important to me. Their pages have sustained me through many a dark moment and their words have carried me to other times, other lands and other places, the only limit was my imagination. I treasure not only the memories of the stories I have read, but also the recollections of where I read them. Do you?

Someone else’s stuff

When you are presented with the residue of death, the material remnants of someone who was close to you either by blood or affection; the sorting through and cleaning up process isn’t as glamorous as it is often made out to be. Sure, it is always possible to find long lost family jewellery, or uncover the deeds to an idyllic island, or stumble on hidden love letters from a person unknown, but it is far more likely you will be sorting through years of the accumulated soiled scraps of someone else’s stuff.

Sorting through my parent’s possessions presented me with exactly the kind of mess I would have much preferred not to deal with.

In the bathroom there were endless bottles and containers of half used medications, some so old the labels were smudged beyond being readable. Plastic tubs of hardened cotton balls sidled up against samples of shampoo, conditioner and various other cosmetics most of which had shrivelled with age. Hardened tubes of toothpaste lay next to tired toothbrushes with browned and broken bristles. Vanity shelves were dotted with sticky lumps of unknown substances in various mouldy colours, like some exotic skin condition.

In the kitchen the bench tops were barely visible under the weight of jars, some empty, some crusted with the remnants of jams or mustards or other blobs of unfathomable material. Everything draped with dust and cobwebs long abandoned by their occupants. Under the sink stacks of square empty margarine containers, their lids angled drunkenly against them. More plastic toward the back, ice cream containers, take away food containers, milk bottles and glass jars of every description. Another cupboard full of decades old canned food, boxes of cereals invaded by weevils, jars perhaps filled with pickles or maybe olives, it was difficult to tell. The refrigerator was no better. Shelves of those margarine containers, not empty this time, each containing bits of leftovers from bygone meals. Half a rissole in one, a handful of French fries in another, some rice, a sad looking salad and a quarter of an apple all of which were either mouldy or beginning to grow interesting looking bacteria.

My mother’s bedroom with wardrobes filled with bent hangers and old, broken shoes stacked on each other. Pockets stuffed with tissues. Scraps of paper on every flat surface. Desk drawers crammed with hardened ink bottles, bent quills, cracked paint tubes and broken brushes. Useless cut offs of drawing boards mixed with scraps of greeting cards in various hues. Trimmings of wrapping paper, twisted lengths of ribbon, fraying ends of elastic, rubber bands melted together in small balls and an endless supply of dried up pens and leadless pencils.

My father’s bedroom crammed with books and carefully opened envelopes of junk mail. Drawers of paperclips, rubber bands, useless pens, pre-used stamps, rulers made of wood, plastic and paper, piles of receipts for purchases long forgotten. His wardrobe shelf neatly arranged with unworn clothes, still packed in their American labelling, unopened for fifty years. Mounds of paperwork, piles precisely placed on each other, mini leaning towers, adorned with thick layers of dust.

A house full of other people’s lives and leftovers.

Oh – and I did find the hidden love letters from an unknown young girl to my father, dated from the end of WW2.