True Life: I Inherited a Private Library

Not too long ago, I received a Facebook message bearing the news that I had inherited a library. The message, from my great aunt’s daughter, came by surprise. Although their branch of the family had been mentioned over the years and even visited when I was very young, had not been a remarkable presence in my life up until the last year or so. My dad’s cousin, who I understand (thanks, Quora) is my first cousin once removed, and I had connected sometime last year and the year before, thanks to the wonders of Facebook. We commented on each other’s statuses, bonded over what little German I remembered from high school and college, occasionally discussed politics and books on the platform and, when the occasion for me to travel to where my family—and she—live, agreed to meet up for a proper introduction.

I would meet her mother (my great aunt), too, who was in the midst of preparing for a medical procedure. Despite the precautions she was ordered to take as part of that preparation, she was overjoyed to see me, and I felt the warm reception in every part of me. She knew far more about me, it seemed, than I did her. I tried not to be embarrassed by this and after a round of hello-how-are-yous-and-so-on, my first cousin once removed and I retreated to the living room to get to know each other while my parents bustled back out into the New England February cold to retrieve coffees.

Every so often, my great aunt would call to my dad’s cousin for help with this or that in the most unobtrusive way. The younger of the family branch would excuse herself, attend to her other, and return with a glowing smile that was warmer than a hearth. Once, she came back with a book in her hand. It was a fairly hefty title (both physically and in the title itself: A Jury of Her Peers: American Woman Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx).

“Mom wants you to have this,” she told me, handing it over.

I poked through it, both out of politeness and genuine interest, but thought about how I’d be getting on a plane with an already too-full suitcase in a few days and wouldn’t be able to take it back with me. The cousin assured me there was no pressure and her mother wouldn’t know the difference if I left it behind. So I did, quietly.

Much of our conversation that day was spent admiring her mother’s library. I’m not sure what I would have said if someone had asked me what I’d expect the library of a woman in her late 70s to look like, but I feel confident it probably would not have been what I ended up discovering, particularly knowing that side of the family, generally speaking, and their beliefs. It would be this library and our conversation that would help me to understand that I (and my dad) were not alone on his side of my family tree. Maybe we weren’t black sheep after all, in our interest in progressive politics, feminist writers, and perhaps a seeming paradoxical love of old things. Maybe we were just gray sheep.

So, I departed from my home state, having left Jury on the coffee table as if placing a sleeping baby.

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A post shared by Abby Hargreaves (@24hourlibrary) on Aug 24, 2019 at 7:03pm PDT

And a few short months later, my great aunt passed, somewhat expectedly.

I didn’t consider it much beyond the usual sympathy over a lost loved one and my own small piece of grief that we hadn’t truly met sooner.

Only a few weeks after that came the news that I’d inherited her books.

The message came without fanfare: “You have just inherited my Mum’s library. There are first editions, no longer in prints, signed copies etc. and it’s worth some money and time to curate.”

I’d never inherited anything in my life. Suddenly, I was a person who had inherited something. How strange. How odd. How exciting. And—curate? I am a librarian, yes, but my expertise is in public service and programming—not cataloging and curation. Yet I was intrigued.

I hadn’t any plans to visit the area, so the cousin agreed to keep things for me until I could make it up. Fortunately, propelled by the tasks of wedding planning, I flew north again and set aside a few hours to visit my great aunt’s home once more, where the books sat just as they had been for however many years. I left my fiancé at the hotel, stopped by Home Depot for boxes and packing tape, picked up more coffee for me and the cousin, and for what will probably be the last time, pulled into my great aunt’s driveway.

Perhaps it was the seasonal circumstances, but when I entered the house this time, vague memories swam at the edges of my consciousness. Yes, now I remembered the backdoor that emptied people from the world into the kitchen. Now I remembered women standing at the sink, probably during my great uncle’s birthday celebration, when he and my young brother shared a Moxie. Now I remembered. Just as the library would now be a part of me, so had the house and its memories always been a part of me—even a part so small and forgotten and, yes, vague.

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A post shared by Abby Hargreaves (@24hourlibrary) on Aug 24, 2019 at 7:02pm PDT

My dad’s cousin and I spent some time catching up before we got to work—I, on the traditional fiction and nonfiction in the living room, she on the coffee table art books in a spare bedroom.

We’d interrupt each other now and then, discovering peculiar ephemera between the pages of the books. She had said I might find such treasures—ticket stubs, book reviews, notes recollecting the article in which the book had been discovered by my great aunt in the first place. And it was like time travel, in a way.

I hadn’t expected to so treasure those little pieces, often just scraps of paper. While I had respect for my great aunt and loved her as you love any part of your family, I had little, if any, personal or meaningful connection to her. But here were these pieces of the life she had lived, tangible. Each book was like a box of Cracker Jack, harboring a key of a surprise that would unlock the memory of this great aunt just a little more. These locked doors may not be doors to rooms, but even the contents of a locked desk or cabinet drawer can be priceless.

And what was more—the notes she had written on the texts themselves. Though I’ve yet to find any actual marginalia, if your definition requires the note be written in the margins, plenty of the books include scrap paper with penciled notes, written in a fine and beautiful hand.

This came at just the right time for me. For months, I’ve been wishing I knew how to approach note-taking in books. There are so many methods out there, but none yet worked for me. But this, what I discovered in my great aunt’s—now my—library, could be yet another key. Newspaper and magazine clippings kept within the pages of the book noted from where my great aunt had heard of the book. Small, square pieces of basic copy paper sometimes fluttered from the covers as I opened the books, that fine penciled  hand again appearing to give information about a notable quote and her response to it.

I tried not to linger too long on any of the pieces—we had catering appointments to make and my hours away from home were dwindling. But I packed the books carefully and hauled all nine boxes into the massive SUV the car rental company had—until then regretfully—saddled us with. I was suddenly ecstatic to have such a beast of a car. By the time I was done lifting the boxes into the back of the car, the inside of my arms were red and bruised.

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A post shared by Abby Hargreaves (@24hourlibrary) on Aug 24, 2019 at 7:02pm PDT

Back at my parents’ house, I unloaded the library into the closet of my old bedroom, except for the art books which I feared might suffer additional damage and left in the main part of the bedroom (18-year-old me didn’t know what she had with that space) and a handful of titles I intended to pack and take back with me.

The night before we were due to leave, I sorted through that latter book and determined to take just 75% or so of them, knowing my packing space was limited. When I came to the main level of the house, my arms full of books, my fiancé and mom asked what I was doing.

“I’m taking these back with me,” I said. “I want to read them.” (As if my own apartment wasn’t already overflowing with unread books.)

“You can’t take all of those,” Fiancé said. “There’s no room.”

“Yes there is,” I said. “I packed just for this.” It was true, I had.

“You’ll go over the weight limit. People will be mad.”

As if people would sort through my luggage and be upset it was heavy with books instead of clothes and toiletries.

“He’s right,” Mom said.

I pouted like I hadn’t since I was a child. I might have even stomped my foot, though not at full force, to my own credit. How was I to leave these behind? Didn’t they understand I needed to get started on these right away? That somehow, I knew my great aunt had some great secret to life well lived and the answer was in the sum of these books?

I compromised, too tired to argue, knowing they couldn’t and wouldn’t ever understand. I narrowed it down, then narrowed it down some more.

“I’ll ship them to you,” Mom said.

Sure, in a few months, when the fire that would burn the pages into my mind would be out.

She surprised me a few days later with the books packed into a new, larger box, and a question about whether there was anything else I might want.

But the notes—I didn’t need copies of them to make use of those right away. Of the few books I brought back with me—an Annie Dillard collection, because of her connection to my alma mater and my love of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which essentially takes place at the same—The Writing Life, also by Dillard, was where I chose to start. This time, I was determined to put to use the note-taking technique my great aunt “taught” me.

At work, on my lunch break, I grabbed a piece of copy paper along with my assorted animal “point marker sticky” pack and got to work reading—flagging the parts that stood out to me, taking time to write out identifying words on the paper along with my own thoughts. Some, a bit in-depth: “Ah, so writers don’t always go where they expect to end up!” and others, more like gut reactions: “Damn, Annie.”

Before, when I had attempted similar approaches, I felt the notes I took were too meaningless—would I someday return to these and think, “‘Damn, Annie’? That’s all I had to say? What good is that?” But now, having encountered some of my great aunt’s limited and abbreviated notes on the things she read, I see the value in it. Perhaps some day, my niece’s and nephew’s children would find my paper scraps tucked in the pages of books of all kinds, and know me just a little better than they did before.

And that’s something worth bookmarking.

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I inherited some books. This is only a fraction and I spent the morning packing them all up. The best part of this inheritance hasn’t been the books, but all of the ephemera and marginalia. My great aunt kept fascinating records about how she came upon titles, related events she attended, and thoughts she had of the books. #personallibrary #mybooks

A post shared by Abby Hargreaves (@24hourlibrary) on Aug 24, 2019 at 1:43pm PDT

With thanks to ABH for the library and DHT for bringing us together.

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