Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Motherhood of the Traveling Norton Anthologies

My house is a mess of piles. There is the pile of stuff for our future garage sale that is still in the discussion stage because my husband says it is not worth the effort. There is the pile of stuff we are donating to Vietnam Veterans of America because no one would want to buy any of it at a garage sale. There is the pile of stuff that Vietnam Veterans of America will not want which will go to the junk collector who I have to pay to haul it away. There is the pile of my younger son’s stuff that we said we would keep until he moves out of the dorm and has an apartment of his own. There is the pile of my older son’s stuff that he asked us to store for him until he has a house with a basement. And there are piles of books everywhere.

Our two sons are both going to college and have moved out, and my husband and I are scaling down. We are not sure what we are going to do going forward, but we are officially Empty Nesters now, and we are trying to see our way through to the next phase of our lives together. If anyone asks, we are just cleaning up and clearing out.

My next-door neighbor commented that she did not think one house could hold so much stuff. She waxes toward polite and I could see she was holding her tongue, wanting to say “garbage” instead of “stuff.”

When we moved from New Jersey to Arizona twenty years ago, we paid a moving company something like $8000 to move our old piles of stuff from there to here. We already had a lot of stuff. We put it all into labeled boxes that identified into which room the stuff would be moved on moving day. If we were nothing else, we were organized. We were proud of ourselves after the first night in our new home because we had all our boxes unloaded and out at the curb for the city’s pick up service. The stuff we moved went into closets, into cupboards, into drawers, into the garage, into cabinets, and onto shelves. Some of these items, we put away and never looked at again.

Among our stuff were my husband’s and my college textbooks. I am not sure exactly why, but at that time in our lives, neither of us could part with them. Maybe it was that some of the books were among the most expensive books we had ever owned or would own, but I don’t think that was it. Maybe saving them was as a remembrance of a time gone by but not forgotten. I don’t think that was it either. We just did not want to give away our books. And it was more than our college books. There were my teaching texts, my husband’s Star Trek and real science books. There were baby books, children’s books, chapter books, adolescent books, and grown up books. There were two sets of encyclopedias and many assorted types of dictionaries. There were books that we had read and books we had bought but could never quite get into. We simply liked having a lot of books around. Originally, they sat on shelves with books of similar subjects, but eventually, the nicely stacked books had books on top of them because that’s where they fit. I also thought in the early days that perhaps someday my sons could use my books. I had been an English teacher, so it made sense to me that my textbooks and anthologies would come in handy. Maybe they could be resources. Maybe they could use the notes I had written in the margins, gems spoken by my professors or thought up by me.

Okay, I was delusional, but not as deluded as my husband who somehow thought anyone would want to look at his business course texts or his copies of The Flea, Fanny Hill, and The Adventures of Samurai Pussy Cat.

That was before computers, and the world has changed so much in what seems to me like a heartbeat.

Last week, when my son was doing his final packing for the dorm, I thoughtfully handed him my cleanest, and what I thought was, my best dictionary, to which my son replied, “Duh, Mom.” He did take his Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life and the screenplay to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but he did not need a dictionary. On Thursday, this son sent me this text message: “$472 bks picked up fr bkstore & pd on credit card. waiting f/mon. to get eng101 texts. also got a cable f/printer & jelly beans.”

So, in the last few weeks, I’ve been creating piles, and trying to come to terms with my life as it is now.

Last night, I addressed our books.

I sat down at one of the piles. That pile had my Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, my Norton’s Anthology of World Masterpieces, and my paperback set of the complete works of William Shakespeare, and I flipped through the pages. I had not looked at any of these since the middle 1970s. In the cover of one fat book, there was a big pink heart with my initials and “loves RL.” “RL” was crossed out and “MD” was written above it. I cannot remember who “RL” or ”MD” were, but when I got to another volume, there was another heart with my initials and “SS” in it this time. There was plenty of highlighting in each text, but I had no memory of ever reading anything that had been highlighted, and I had no idea how I ever read such small print anyway. I showed my husband who said, “Get a magnifying glass.” My impressive margin notes included, “Today’s list: 1. Call Mom. 2. Get tampons & Clearasil. 3. Finish essay. 4. Buy TAB. 5. Fix flat.” On another page, there was something about Eudora Welty and then the words, “He loves me. He loves me not,” with some daisies drawn in the margins and finally the words, “HE LOVES ME!” On another page, there was an arrow to a poem by e.e.cummings with the words “very cool” written next to it. If memory serves me, and that is debatable these days, that’s the poem I copied from the Internet a few years ago and pasted into a card I gave to my son and daughter-in-law on their wedding day. There were other scribbles in other margins, but they were mostly either illegible, lists, or things about when various assignments were due. There were also more hearts and more initials.

Finally, I grew bored of looking through proof that I was an airhead 30 years ago. I am so glad I grew out of that stage of my life. I moved the books to the pile of things we are just not sure about yet, and I joined my husband on the couch. I did not want to miss a minute of Dancing with the Stars.

©2006 by Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this originally appeared at The Irascible Professor.