One Saturday in May I noticed a clearly lettered handmade sign taped onto a telephone pole near our house: “Plants and Books for Sale” followed by an address on a nearby street. My husband and I headed over; how could we resist? We approached a small white house screened by a cedar hedge. The driveway was lined with makeshift tables brimming with plants of various sizes and types. Printed sheets in clear plastic protectors provided information about each plant: latin name, care required, interesting facts.
Two deck chairs were set up at the head of the driveway. In one sat a woman, about 75 perhaps, with white hair and an anxious face. A teenaged boy sat next to her wearing a beige safari hat and glasses. He smiled at us and rose as we approached. “Interest…est…est…ed in buying some plants?” he stuttered. “Yes, in a bit” I answered. Looking at the woman I added, “But I am even more interested in the books.”
“Yes, well we have a house full of those, and they’re all for sale,” she announced, getting slowly out of the chair. “Follow me.” As we followed her into the dark hallway and throughout a warren of small rooms, I was impressed by the many bookshelves as well as boxes of books in the house. There must have been hundreds, even thousands of books. Books about philosophy, religion, mythology, art history. Shelf after shelf of novels, books of poems. Thick hard-covered books about countries of the world, about ships, and about plants. Politics, history, economics. This was an incredible collection, accumulated over a lifetime, evidence of an astute and curious reader.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you selling all of your books?” I ventured.
“They belong to my husband. He just had a stroke. They said he’ll never read again. And he won’t want them here when he gets back from the hospital. So they’ve all got to go.” She spoke in a rather brusque fashion, then turned on her heel and went back outside.
What a thing to happen! How unfair life is, to rob a man of one of his central pleasures!
My husband and I wandered through the rooms browsing, ending up on the front porch where several cardboard boxes set up on card tables overflowed with books. The boy was soon standing beside me. “Was your grandfather a professor?” I asked. “Yes, he was, before he retired,” the boy replied. We stood companionably together thumbing through books.
For one dollar each I bought Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter, Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, and Through the Flower: my struggle as a woman artist, by Judy Chicago. I tucked them away and forgot about them.
This week I discovered them atop a tall pile under my sewing table.
Fraser’s account of her long relationship with Pinter is comprised mostly of short, choppy journal entries. I read the first fifty pages and realized that the intricacies of their affair, the play reviews, the money problems, the vitriolic ex-wife, the children: none of these things interest me. I don’t really like Pinter’s plays, and I couldn’t get through Mary Queen of Scots. Sure, it’s a real-life romantic love story, and I am a sucker for those. But why on earth did I buy this book, when there were so many other better ones?
I reflected on this for a bit and then it came to me. It was the clippings. When I first handled this book at the sale, three slips of folded newsprint fell out: all from the Globe and Mail, all published in different months in 2010. One was a review of the memoir by Keith Garebian, the other two were reflections about Fraser’s book by Ian Brown and Elizabeth Renzetti. Two of the clippings focused on the uncontrollable force of love. As Brown wrote, “sometimes people’s hearts just overtake them.” Pinter and Fraser, each in their early forties, were both in long marriages with other people. With cyclone force, they fell in love with each other.
The clippings told me a story about this person I’d never met. As the folded slips fell out of the paperback, they brought an image of an old man sitting at the kitchen table in the sun with a mug of coffee, a pair of scissors, and the Globe and Mail. Carefully cutting out articles, folding them precisely, and tucking them into the book he’d recently enjoyed.
Perhaps he loved Pinter’s plays or Fraser’s historical biographies and was curious about the scandal they created in London in 1975.
Or perhaps he was moved by this grand love affair, where two people ignored social expectations and fell into the vortex of attraction and emotion. Perhaps this love story stirred some deep longing in his own heart. In any case, the clippings showed his interest in the book. And they also show his meticulous attention to detail, his wish to capture information and cross-reference it. I like to think the clippings give me a glimpse into his lively, complex mind before the fateful stroke. Or perhaps I’m just telling stories.
I also bought a large pot of Autumn Joy at the sale. The grandson, who shared with us his dream of becoming a botanist some day, told me I could look forward to reddish pink blooms in the fall.
Brown, Norman O. Love’s Body. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1966.
Chicago, Judy. Through the Flower: my struggle as a woman artist. Anchor Books, 1977.
Fraser, Antonia. Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter. Random House, 2010.