My hope in agreeing to the proposal that I, as the least employable member of the family, should stay with Aunt Emma and take the opportunity to catalog her books, was that by the act of handling beautiful books without the harshness of deadlines or the necessity to parse every detail, or even the obligation to read when I was disinclined, my deadened sensibilities would begin to revive. Perhaps I would discover, in this nebulous time, a hidden talent or some unexpected intersection of reading and career. Emma herself had managed to be extremely successful in working her way through the ranks of saleswomen to become a buyer for a regional department store, now long melded into some vast conglomerate. She had been uniquely suited to the demands of the position. She loved to travel. She had an unerring sense of style and impeccable taste. Her income had allowed her to indulge her love of books with the ardor of the amateur. Her marriage had unraveled quickly, leaving her with no family obligations but those of doting aunt and, as time went on, great-aunt. She was confident and independent and bold, and I could trace in my own life no path that paralleled hers.
The next morning I rose at a decent hour and slogged into the kitchen in search of coffee. A search turned up a vintage percolator, but there were no beans to be found, and I was loathe to look at, much less touch, the bizarre series of jars of increasingly watery coffee in the refrigerator. This lack of coffee wasn’t the world’s greatest tragedy -- I drink coffee in the morning for the sake of propriety, but I’m not married to my cup of joe. I could drink tea at Aunt Emma’s. I would take my mug out to the breezeway and watch the morning light pour across the sloping back yard until it was absorbed by the belt of trees which guarded a small stream. With this noble plan in mind, I leaned into the cabinet next to the refrigerator and shifted boxes and bottles until I had uncovered the sole package of tea.
The faded red and yellow logo proclaimed this to be a box of Lipton tea, with Flo-Thru bags. Inside, a fine black dust covered every surface and the stiff and venerable tea bags lay scattered. Aunt Emma had liked good tea, and I ruefully reflected that this relic had been so long unmolested was probably a company box, for those afflicted with undiscerning palates. There had been little company of late. I hesitated over whether to replace the box or throw it out, but in the end I tucked in away on the shelf. It was possible that Aunt Emma might notice that her ancient tea had gone missing, and I wanted to do as little provoking as possible.
Breakfast was an almost equally grim affair, but I made do with a cup of yogurt and vowed that the next shopping expedition would have to be less monochromatic.
I had been itching to get my hands on the books, and I had the premonition that it might be wiser to start on this project while Emma was asleep. Crossing through the living room, I stood in the doorway of the study and inhaled the smell of books.
Emma had never had a unified vision of book collecting. She bought for the love of acquisition, as the whim seized her, and the whim was partial to the beautiful. I knew Emma hadn’t read all the books here in her library; some of them would have bored her miserably. Certainly the rest of the family didn’t spend much time perusing the stacks, which was where I came in. I had spent many hours browsing in this room as a child, pulling one and then another book off the shelves that lined each wall. I would sample each book as I came to it in turn, pronouncing the author’s name as best I could. Shakes-peare. Du-mas. Beer-bohm. Dos-toy-ev-sky. De-Sade... I had no idea Aunt Emma could move so fast, but that volume was almost instantly lifted out of my hands and another was smoothly substituted in its place. “You’ll like this one better,” she said easily, leaving the room with the book, and I never found it in her library again, no matter how I looked.
Now I sat at the table in the center of the room and laid my leather notebook and fountain pen before me. Both had been purchased for the purpose of cataloging. Dad had pointed out to me that a spreadsheet would be a more efficient tool for the job, but I couldn’t countenance the contrast of my battered laptop with the patina of the wood and the muted glow of the carpet and the rich papery odor of the books. Dragging technology into the library would have been the rankest form of cheating, and I was determined to make an honest go of the project. In that spirit of determination I stepped to a shelf, pulled down a book at random, and hitched up my chair to the table.
Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb. 1899, publisher Roycroft Press. Soft cover slightly battered, but in good shape. Text yellowed but clean.
Paging gently through the text in search of marks or tears, reading a word here, a paragraph there, I sank gently and pleasurably into the literary quicksand.
Pig -- let me speak his praise -- Is no less provocative of the appetite, than he is satisfactory to the criticalness of the palate. The strong man may batten on him, and the weakling refuseth not his mild juices.
Unlike to mankind's mixed characters, a bundle of virtues and vices, inexplicably intertwisted, and not to be unravelled without hazard, he is good throughout. No part of him is better or worse than another.
He helpeth, as far as his little means extend, all around. He is the least envious of banquets. He is all neighbours' fare.
I am one of those, who freely and ungrudgingly impart a share of the good things of this life which fall to their lot (few as mine are in this kind) to a friend. I protest I take as great an interest in my friend's pleasures, his relishes, and proper satisfactions, as in mine own. "Presents," I often say, "endear Absents." Hares, pheasants, partridges, snipes, barn-door chicken (those "tame villatic fowl"), capons, plovers, brawn, barrels of oysters, I dispense as freely as I receive them. I love to taste them, as it were, upon the tongue of my friend. But a stop must be put somewhere. One would not, like Lear," give every thing." I make my stand upon pig. Methinks it is an ingratitude to the Giver of all good flavours, to extra-domiciliate, or send out of the house, slightingly, (under pretext of friendship, or I know not what) a blessing so particularly adapted, predestined, I may say, to my individual palate -- It argues an insensibility.
I remember a touch of conscience in this kind at school. My good old aunt, who never parted from me at the end of a holiday without stuffing a sweet-meat, or some nice thing, into my pocket, had dismissed me one evening with a smoking plum-cake, fresh from the oven. In my way to school (it was over London bridge) a grey-headed old beggar saluted me (I have no doubt at this time of day that he was a counterfeit). I had no pence to console him with, and in the vanity of self-denial, and the very coxcombry of charity, school-boy-like, I made him a present of -- the whole cake! I walked on a little, buoyed up, as one is on such occasions, with a sweet soothing of self-satisfaction; but before I had got to the end of the bridge, my better feelings returned, and I burst into tears, thinking how ungrateful I had been to my good aunt, to go and give her good gift away to a stranger, that I had never seen before, and who might be a bad man for aught I knew; and then I thought of the pleasure my aunt would be taking in thinking that I -- I myself, and not another -- would eat her nice cake -- and what should I say to her the next time I saw her -- how naughty I was to part with her pretty present -- and the odour of that spicy cake came back upon my recollection, and the pleasure and the curiosity I had taken in seeing her make it, and her joy when she sent it to the oven, and how disappointed she would feel that I had never had a bit of it in my mouth at last -- and I blamed my impertinent spirit of aims-giving, and out-of-place hypocrisy of goodness, and above all I wished never to see the face again of that insidious, good-for-nothing, old grey impostor...
I jerked guiltily from my contemplation of Roast Pig at the sound of humming. Aunt Emma was in the living room, prodding something at the television.
“I’m trying to make this thing go on,” she explained, “but I can’t get this to work.” She waved around the item in her hand, and with a shock, I recognized it as one of my hair clips.
“Aunt Emma,” I asked with some restraint, “have you been in my room?”
“They just don’t make these things like they used to. All these little things,” and here she poked at the enameled surface of the clip, “but none of them work worth a darn.” Cheerfully she pocketed the clip and turned toward the kitchen.
I leapt down the hall to my doorway. My suitcase was unmolested in the corner of the room, but my box of makeup and jewelry had been emptied onto the bed and pawed through. I vacillated between dismay, rage, and irritation at myself for being so careless as to leave things laying around. Why had Aunt Emma been in my room? Why should I have expected her not to go in my room, seeing as it was actually her room? What, was I supposed to keep the door locked all the time?
I leaned my head against the door frame and took three deep shuddering breaths. Then I tidied up my things, tucked the box into the top drawer of the dresser, fastened the door carefully, and headed to the kitchen to feed Emma, who seemed to be looking for her breakfast. She was poking through cabinets and drawers and carrying on a cheerful monologue. Her air of utter harmlessness was both touching and goading, and I took one more deep breath as I willed myself to be touched instead of goaded.
Breakfast was easy enough. She selected a protein shake and settled down happily in front of the small television on the kitchen table to interact with the personalities on the morning show. “All they do is talk,” she informed me sagely before taking a slurp of chocolate-flavored beverage from a straw. I headed back to the library, taking care not to get too caught up in the books that I lost track of Emma.
By lunchtime, my stomach reminded me that a healthy girl cannot survive on yogurt alone and propelled me to the refrigerator. Emma, placidly pottering about the kitchen opening cabinets, greeted me.
“Hi, honey!” she said. “You look like you could eat something.”
“I think I will,” I answered, tugging open the door of the fridge to inventory its contents. I could boil an egg, maybe, or there was still cheese and some meat in the drawer -- and something else that I couldn’t recognize through the frosted glass. Further inspection made me shake my head in resignation: there, nestled in with the singles and the cheese sticks and the package of shaved ham, was my hair clip.
Over the next few days, Emma and I settled into a routine. I realized that if I wanted to get a shower before bedtime, I had to get up early and be completely ready before she even woke up. I would spend the morning doing various tasks around the house -- not only the laundry and the dishes, but also the minor repairs and patches that an older house requires. Floors were scrubbed, glass was cleaned, several spiders were evicted from the breezeway, and the top of the pantry door was sanded down so it would close all the way. After lunch, Emma liked to sit on the patio and say her rosary, and finally she would wander to her room for a nap. This was my time, and I treasured it. At first I threw myself headlong in the cataloguing of books, but it was unnatural to be surrounded by so many words without stopping to savor them, and soon I was spending more time reading the books than noting them down in my book.
On Saturday evening, it was time to take Emma on my first outing. She was dressed early in readiness for Mass, and as I lingered in the doorway, she sat at her dressing table and assembled her makeup like an artist marshaling his supplies. Emma had always been fond of her cosmetics, and I had stood at her elbow as a girl and avidly studied her techniques, but there was something pathetic about the intensity, if not the precision, with which she painted now.
“You don’t have to be too fancy, Aunt Emma,” I told her. “Jesus won’t mind.”
“It’s not Jesus I mind,” she snorted, applying coral lipstick with a hand that only trembled slightly. “I’d scare everybody if I went out with no makeup. People would ask, ‘What’s that old girl doing out without her face on?’”
“You’re beautiful all the time, Emma,” I protested, but she waved me off.
“You ought to wear a little makeup,” she observed. “The men like to see a girl who has some color.”
“I already have some makeup on,” I protested. “Now you just finish up and let’s go to church.”
I had wondered about how it would be to take Emma somewhere, but it seemed my fears were unfounded. Emma was an easy passenger. The moving scene outside her window afforded her a great deal of innocent pleasure, and she remarked and observed and wandered in her own murky world.
“Those cars just go whizzing by,” she said, judging the whole modern obsession with speed with one shake of her head. “They just go, go, go. I guess we’ll get there when we get there. They’re all coming, aren’t they?”
“We’re going to church, Aunt Emma. It’s Saturday afternoon, so we’re going to Our Lady of Lourdes for Mass.”