My mother bequeathed her art book collection to my stepfather in the fall of 1986. A few hundred books that spanned from her art school days to her death — large and small plated books on Renoir and Picasso, Warhol and Rothko, American quilts and Inuit drawings — all boxed, moved and shelved at least six times in three states since then. When he became ill and I received a call offering them to me last month, I had to weigh and measure more than just the books before deciding whether I wanted to retrieve them.
I have spent that same period of time accumulating — and sloughing off — twice that amount of books. Now at an age when I am lightening my load both for myself and my children, I had to consider the quantity of books, the drive to central Oregon, the sorting through, the decision making, the re-boxing, then the mailing off to family and extended family. I considered letting them all go — sight unseen — to the library book sale near his home.
After all, I had to let them go once, when the will was read, when I slipped a few favorites into the moving van and drove away from her house for the last time. I had reconciled thirty-five years ago that this part of her had been given to him. I considered that holding this part of her might be too hard now.
I called my stepbrother. He had laid eyes on them more recently than me. “Is this worth it — what would you do?” I queried. It only took one sentence. “Your mom stuck stuff in her books.” And with that I knew their value to me. Was anything remaining between the pages after all these years? How would I ever know if I didn’t look.
We left Seattle before dawn on a heroic twenty-four hour turn-around road trip, thanks to a strong and willing cousin. Loaded the twelve boxes six hours later, fed and watered ourselves in Portland and returned to Seattle the next day. I poured myself a glass, then slowly opened the first box top and folded back the cardboard.
There they were, all those old friends that had sat on the tables of my childhood. One by one I unpacked and stacked the books around me. At times I didn’t breathe or found myself gasping a little. In the middle of some books I laughed. For the most part I was deep in my head, remembering, the bitter and the sweet rolling through me.
My mother drifted through the room — there she was in her sixties prairie skirt, showing me a photo, daring me to understand abstraction, color, the blurred line between fact and fiction. My mother as the young, stunning, mind-snapping, creative difficult brilliant artist, attending gallery openings, dazzling and being dazzled, exploring line and color and the pulse of the art world. Seated on the living room floor with her artist friends — sculptors and painters and writers — drinking wine and changing the eyes of the world with their fiberglass and canvas, oil paint and wood.
And the scraps of paper did keep falling out from between the pages; poetry, lines scored, erased, rewritten. Letters from family and friends, the ones she obviously wanted to keep and reread, worn thin at the folds. Pencil sketches that I knew later turned into paintings and sculpture. Postcards and notes from her favorite people. And endless lines of her handwriting tilting down the margins of books and catalogs, her script as familiar to me as her laugh. Healing, difficult and amazing to see after all this time.
I was pretty ruthless with my sorting, that’s just the reality. But dozens of friends and family will be getting a little something in the mail — or a lot of something — in the next month. And I will have fulfilled one of her last wishes, demanded of me before she died;
“Please don’t put my things in boxes. Send them into the world.”
Big love to the people that brought these books back into my hands and helped me do just that. I am breathing.
“Chicken nesting in garden.” Sketch in pencil on notepaper.
Alexandra Hammer Clark, @1982.