Monday, March 24, 2008

Cleaning Out and Moving On

When my parents moved into their house 20-some years ago, they didn't have enough bookshelves, and in a power dynamic pretty typical of their marriage, they couldn't decide what kind to buy. So in what was supposed to be temporary solution, Mom set up her collection of paperback mysteries on makeshift shelves of plastic crates in the garage.

Of course, the books never made it out of the garage and into the house. While Mom was alive, however, the set-up actually functioned pretty well. Mom, my sister, and I read and traded mysteries avidly, so there was always a lot of activity going on. Plus, Mom was always more than content to binge-read her way through the entire oeuvre of Michael Innes or Margery Allingham over and over again.

When she died a few years ago, my sister and I debated about whether to split up her collection, but we decided against it. On a sentimental level, it seemed like leaving her books just the way she had arranged them, pages splattered with grease from when she read with one hand and cooked with the other, or wrinkled from being dropped into the bathtub, was a way of keeping her with us. And on a practical level, we liked knowing that if we were ever stuck at (now) Dad's house with nothing to read, or if we really wanted to reread a particular Ellis Peters or Emma Lathen, the books were there.

But inevitably as the years passed, we used the shelves less and less. Finally, a few months ago, I went looking for a Dick Francis I wanted and was dismayed to find how dusty and musty it and its fellows were. The time had come, I decided, to take action.

So I announced to my sister that I was going to rescue the books. We would each take what we wanted, and I would find homes for the rest before they moldered away completely. Sis objected at first, but I pointed out that Mom would surely prefer for her books to be loved by someone else rather than die from neglect. Sis, who lives in a Manhattan apartment the size of a shoebox, declined her share of the legacy, but gave me her go-ahead.

Thus, last Saturday I spent a long hour making my way through about half of the collection, cherry-picking the stuff I wanted most. I was underprepared for the amount of dust involved, and wound up completely covered and sneezing; some books had amassed bunnies big enough to hop away (it was Easter, after all). Next time I'll go armed with an apron, a mask, and an industrial-size can of Pledge. Despite that, most books were in better shape than I feared; although a few fell apart in my hands, most were dry and relatively intact.

Now I've got six grocery bags of books to find room for on my own full-to-bursting shelves. But I feel in a way that I've reached a new level of adulthood; that the books were already mine, but I've finally stopped relying on my folks to store them for me.

Once I collect the remainder, I will try to make good on my promise to disperse them to a caring audience. Some of them may be collector's items; I will take them to the used mystery bookstore near my house and see if there's anything they will actually pay for. The rest I will probably list on BookMooch. Perhaps I will offer a 2-for-1 deal on the most stained or rippled. Eventually, in any case, most or all of them will find their way into appreciative hands.

Mom didn't believe in an afterlife, but I like to think that somewhere she's sitting at a kitchen table with a tepid cup of coffee, a cigarette, and an exciting book that hasn't even been published yet, nodding her quiet approval.


SpookyRach said...

Sounds like a pretty damn good afterlife to me...

Sally said...

really beautifully written; we can't "decide" about some purchases either... :)

Muse of Ire said...

The part about "not being able to decide" is really code for "Dad dug in his heels and rejected every reasonable suggestion." It's the same principle that directed most of the house's (lack of) decoration.

spookyrach, throw in a pile of extra-hard diagramless crossword puzzles and the ability to eat all the steak, corn, and tomatoes she wanted and that WOULD be Mom's idea of complete heaven.