Old books that have ceased to be of service should no more be abandoned than should old friends who have ceased to give pleasure.
- Bernard M. Baruch
I found some old friends in my garage the other day.
Five years after my husband's death, I'm only about halfway through sorting out all of his stuff. Barry was a tinkerer, an inventor, an avid reader and, most of all, a pack rat. I've been going through closets and cartons, one room at a time, and now I just have his workroom and the garage to clean out. Last week, as I went through the dozens of books and hundreds of magazines he'd collected, I found one box that was labeled "KC" and taped shut. For a moment I thought the box might contain a message from beyond the grave, like in that "P.S. I Love You" movie. But then I recognized my own writing, even if I couldn't recall what I had packed into the box 10 years ago.
It was full of books I'd kept since my childhood, including Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" autobiographical series and "The Golden Dictionary," which, according to the cover, contained 1,030 words and more than 1,500 pictures in color. My cleanup project came to a screeching halt and I spent the next couple of hours reveling in the musty, age-stained pages.
Most of the books had been given to me by Aunt Esther, a dear family friend who sent me a book for my birthday and one for Christmas every year of my youth. My father taught me to read when I was 2, and so the first book Aunt Esther gave me was inscribed "Since my little one can read it at three, she shall have it. Happy Birthday." Like "The Golden Dictionary," this book, "1 2 3 4 5," was full of pictures. Black-and-white photographs, actually, illustrating short poems about numbers. My favorite page showed a human pyramid formed by a family of young circus acrobats, no more than 8 or 9 years old.
Seven children, three girls, four boys,
Though still fond of play with toys,
Know how to build a ladder into space,
And how to keep a smiling face.
Three and four, adding up to seven,
Seven children reaching toward heaven.
I remember gazing at that photo and imagining myself posed on top of the pile. That was during my Toby Tyler phase, when I planned to run away with the circus as soon as it came to Maui.
When I was a little older, maybe 10 or 11, "Manners to Grow On" was one of my favorite books. Anxious to put the lessons into practice, I corrected my father in table etiquette one evening when we were dining at the old Maui Frontier (now Cary and Eddie's Hideaway). My mother gave me a withering look and sternly said, "Good manners is making the other person feel comfortable." That's all she said, but it was a lesson I never forgot.
"The Boy Who Drew Cats" was also in the box. The oversized book of Japanese folk tales retold by Lafcadio Hearne fascinated me for years, despite - or perhaps because of - the cover depicting a huge rat-goblin sneaking up on an innocent little boy as he lay sleeping. In the story, the young wanderer spends the night in a deserted temple, unaware of the bloodthirsty rat that terrorized the village. The child had been frowned upon by his parents and teachers for his habit of drawing cats everywhere he went, on walls, in books, on any flat surface. When he came upon the abandoned temple, he spent the entire day drawing cats throughout the building. Late that night, the boy was awakened by sounds so eerie and violent, he didn't dare peek out of the cabinet in which he slept. The next morning, he found the floor covered with blood, the body of the goblin in the middle of the mess. He wondered who could have slaughtered the monster, and then he noticed that the mouths of all the cats he'd drawn were wet with blood. His beloved cats had saved him.
I probably owe my storytelling career to those books and to Aunt Esther and my parents. My father was obsessed with teaching me to read as soon as I could speak coherently. I've enjoyed reading aloud and sharing stories ever since.
Thank goodness I'm as much of a pack rat as Barry was. Otherwise I might have tossed out those books long ago. Instead I got to enjoy a wonderful reunion in the midst of a melancholy task, reliving cherished memories and getting reacquainted with my old friends. They may have been forgotten for a while, but they continue to give pleasure.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.