My mother left a pile of nondescript books when she died and after a quick scan of titles I found no enthusiasm for sorting through in detail. Neither did I feel comfortable in throwing them out, or putting them in cardboard boxes along the curb with a small “help yourself” sign, a certain way of disposing of unwanted goods in our neighborhood without feeling guilty of committing waste. So they sat in the attic along with other boxes and piles of forgotten assets, clothing and magazines and broken sports equipment and dried corn ears that once hung on our front door and were long ago eaten clean by the mice.
There came a fall day when for no reason (vague fear of fire? vague sense of disorder?) I decided to climb the ladder and begin the process of triage: keep, sell, discard. The prospect was not promising; old children’s clothing of indeterminate size and provenance, dried catcher’s mitt, National Geographics stripped of their maps and inserts and displaying yellowed edges from years of heat. The books seemed the most promising, and with the slight hint of possible discovery to inspire the effort.
No sense in trying to build high drama about my discovery, it just happened, the thing simply slipped out of a thin book of poetry by an unknown author. Two pieces of tissue paper, both slightly soiled with dried oily residue, between which was sandwiched a small dried orchid. Its purple had faded to a pale lavender, its bouquet long dissolved into dust, its stem twisted and gone from green to grey.
The book was Love Poems by Catherine Caruso. Never heard of her. Put the flower and the book aside and spent another half hour sorting old books, a few classics, a few books presumably popular in the thirties, a first edition of Gone With the Wind that I promised to take to an antique book dealer in Boston, mostly titles and authors I had never encountered. I began to sneeze, the motes of dust floating in the beams now cutting into the air from the window at the end of the attic; time to descend.
After dinner, sitting down at the computer, I did a search for Catherine Caruso; over 2,000,000 hits. Catherine Caruso poems; the same. Facebook entries; not likely for the writer of a book dated 1922. Catherine Caruso with the name of the publisher; nothing. A few pages into the search, I had millions of hits to go and still not a clue; a middle school student in Connecticut took second place in a poetry contest; decedents without biographies; a self-professed agnostic concerning brussels sprouts (almost tempted to read that one, but resisted); a daughter whose father was linked to Al Capone. Not much to go on, unless dedicated to reading two million or more entries.
The poems were sparse, blank verse, rather pleasant, bland, precious and pretty. Flipping through, riffing the pages, a glimpse of blue led me to carefully turn all of the pages one by one; a blank folio after the title page bore a note: “To Bessie, With Greatest Fondness, Jake 3/1/33.” The kind of handwriting that you don’t see any more; some States do not even teach script handwriting in elementary school, the assumption being that every word will end up as computer bits either typed in or captured in word recognition software by the time students reach a point where their written words have sufficient import to be noted.
Who knows the names of friends of parents when your parents were young? When parents are dead, and uncles and aunts and friends and all that remains is a pile of old books in some attic of a son who himself is a grandfather? All that remains of your parent is the faded memory of more recent times, a stone on the ground somewhere and a bunch of faded pictures which, if you are lucky, are stuck in an album with black crumbling pages and unglued mounting corners.
There’s an idea. Into the den, into the lower cabinet, out comes the old photo albums you cleaned out of your parents’ closet when they were both finally gone. Mostly used to find early pictures of aunts, uncles, grandparents, faces to show your children and grandchildren so that they can feign attention and then go back to whatever it was from which you distracted them, not to care at all until decades later a couple of them want to build a family tree from the shards of evidence still available.
There she is, younger than I knew her, before I was born, before she was married to my dad, before she left for the City to become a dancer in theory, a bookkeeper in practice (and glad indeed for the job, it is 1932 and there aren’t many positions for a high school graduate from a small town somewhere). High School graduation; all alone in white gown and flat hat. Dancing shots, sepia and cracked, publicity pictures perhaps, one or two with another dancer, but female, likely not our Jake.
Two pictures of a bunch of young people in period beachwear, sloppy pyramid of faces, fuzzy 3 inch by 5 inch glossy picture with perforated edges, taken by some Brownie Hawkeye or even some more primitive camera, who knows, an old Agfa with small bellows you extended by hand to move the lens into position. Gently I remove the pictures and look on the back; no names, one says “Old Orchard Beach ’30—The Gang!”
There are no diaries from my mother. There are no letters tied together carefully with a red strip of ribbon. There is no one to ask questions of. That is a shock; I cannot think of a single living person who knew my mother on her twentieth birthday (3-1-33), or who knew her in a time and manner where some hint of Jake could be divined. By the time I tried to get an oral history from my mother, her mind had a tendency to wander and in the wrong directions; and then, she was gone. My own life’s line sharply readjusts at that thought; I will write down everything, I will make my children film my every memory. When my memorabilia slips out of some book fifty years from now, it will be documentable, traceable, fixed in time and space and memory, footnoted for all who care to know.
In my dreams last night I asked my mother, my mother of when I was ten years old, to explain to me about Jake and the orchid. She smiled and told me to do my homework. She glanced at my father and lowered her voice and said that someday she would tell me, when we were alone and had a lot of time.
I woke up and put the orchid back in the book and put the book on a shelf in my bedroom. Some day my children will go through my pile of old books, triaging them (indeed, if at that time there is any use at all for books in hard copy). I will tuck a copy of this story into the front of the book, and date it and sign it. I record now for posterity: this book and this flower were my mother’s, Bessie Ida Tashlitsky, born March 1, 1913, given her by Jake for her twentieth birthday.
And somewhere the children or grandchildren of Jake have found a picture of some girl named Bessie and have been at a loss to know who she was.
Memo to Jake’s heirs: Bessie was my mom.