Our Jasia picked a great topic for this 118th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Reading! My choice on this topic was easy, though possibly not quite as intended. Thank you, Jasia, nudging me along this long remembered path.
Memories of Two Books
Reading, curled up in a chair, or in a tree; nestled in my bed, under the blankets with a flashlight shining it's yellow glow. These images that are in my head, except for the last one, are more likely what I wanted to be --- a reader. In reality, I wasn't much of a reader when I was growing up. My mother, though she professed a love of books, felt that reading should only be done after all the chores were finished --- and in her world, chores were never finished. I don't remember very many books that I read, but what I do remember is wanting to read and fall into a world different that mine. And I did tumble into that world of words, images, lives, places and things that has marked my adult years.
My earliest memories of holding a book with reverence comes from visits to my Grandmother Sigford, my mother's mother. She had a bookcase with glass doors that her son, my Uncle Clem, built for her and as a special treat she would sit with me and show me her treasures --- family bibles and albums, a book handed down from her grandmother, one of her books from her childhood, and then an odd collection of books about the Pacific northwest, particularly Seattle.
Once in a while, she took out her most favorite book, her elocution book. In the late 1890s my grandmother, young Agnes Laura Keyes, yearned to go to school in “the Valley,” which meant Corvallis and Salem, to those living in the grass and sage covered hills of eastern Oregon. As I remember her story, she had a teacher, who boarded with their family, who convinced her father that she should go to high school in “the valley.” My grandmother held those years dear to her heart. I think she would have stayed in the more civilized Willamette Valley, but the young man who caught her fancy died just before graduation. My grandmother came back to the ranch in eastern Oregon where there were no theaters, literary groups, wonderful libraries. She came back to the life she knew as a child, and the dreams of living a city life of letters disappeared.
My sister and I were the only grandchildren who spent much time with them, and my sis was five years younger and much happier picking strawberries in the garden and such. But, in me, my grandmother found an awed audience when she brought down the elocution book. She had me practice my enunciation, rounding vowels, crisp consonants, and then she would read from the book. I was enthralled.
She died just after I turned twelve and in time the elocution book found it's way to me, but that treasure wasn't meant to be kept. An early winter wind blew off the roof of the shed where my treasures were kept and the elocution was a sodden mass when we cleaned the debris left by the storm. The loss of the elocution book has haunted me to this day; however the memories of the days with my grandmother can be called up at my whim. An odd combination of memories of that elocution book.
The second book, that had a powerful effect on me, also came from my grandmother, Agnes Laura. For my mother's birthday, August 14, 1945, she gave her a book of poetry, The Standard Book of British and American VERSE. I don't remember my mother reading poetry from the book, but she did give me a great gift. As the oldest, by five years, I was charged with doing the evening dishes. I moaned, groaned, groused, and was a most unpleasant dishwasher.
One evening, my mother brought out the poetry book and placed the open book on the window sill above the sink. She had opened it to the poem “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes; a poem that had special meaning to my mother, as her mother had made her memorize it when she was about my age and her presentation of “Old Ironsides” won the school speech contest. I recognized the poem as it was one my grandmother read from her elocution book. I was hooked. My grandmother passed the poem to my mother, and she to me --- and I gave it back to my mother on the day of her funeral, as it seems to be appropriate.
For all the years that we lived in that house, I washed dishes, not rapidly mind you, but with great emotion as I read and memorized my favorites; Poe's “For Anna,” “Annabell Lee” and “The Raven;” Tennyson's “Lady of Shalott.” I emoted over Elizabeth Barrett Browning's “How Do I Love Thee?” and Alfred Noyes' “The Highwayman.” During that place between childhood and womanhood, my friends in the evening hours were Robbie Burns, Frost, Coleridge, Pope, Marvell,Herrick, Donne, Marlowe, Dickinson, Shelly, and the list, words, cadence goes on and on.
My children and grandchildren often ask, “How do you know so many poems?” and I reply, “I did a lot of dishes when I was growing up.”
And so my lifelong love of words, books, and images of places, people, and things I have never known were given to me, almost unknowingly, by my mother and my grandmother Agnes Laura in the form of an old fashioned elocution book and a book of poetry.