Saturday, December 3, 2011

Red Ink and Old Books

With the holiday season upon us, I am, like others, inspired to recall memories of seasons past. The laughter that erupted under the roof and made my sides ache for days, and the fervent, unthinking feuds that made my heart ache for years; both have served to fuel the fires to forge the steel foundation for the woman I have become.

What marks the start of the season for me is when Mom grabs her step-stool to reach the cookbooks stashed above the fridge. (Well, she used to. When the kitchen was remodeled, the cookbooks moved to a more convenient display at counter-height).

Of all the books my mother owns, however, her personal ones are probably the ones I cherish most. Earmarked pages and sticky-notes riddle my mother’s cookbooks. She has two she keeps now, one for savory and one for sweet, and both are busting at the seams again. One summer, before the computer made its way into our world, we painstakingly undertook the project of typing out each recipe on that brick of a typewriter. Did we convert all of them? No, we ran out of ribbon ink and patience part of the way through. By the time we sat down to make another attempt, technology had moved on and the typewriter never found replacement ribbon.

Those cookbooks represent my entire history. Every milestone of my life, my dubious public school education has a recipe to correspond with it. My third grade teacher gave us the Chinese Chicken Salad that my brother devours by the bucket load, as told by my mother’s red script penned in the margins. There’s a cookie recipe delightfully referred to as PTA Cookies with “rich and gooey” written in red ink across the top corner. Peanut Butter Play-dough was a big hit in kindergarten according to the red ink on its page. A random Pita Bread recipe we got from an in-class demonstration during cultural awareness week that we have never managed to recreate successfully is still found within the Breads section, again with the ubiquitous red ink notation that reads Grrr in frustration.

Editor, if you’re reading this: this is one of the reasons that I find your red pen a fantastic friend.

It’s not just the recipes I look forward to whenever I crack open the books. I swear Mom saved every single scrap of family notes we posted on the fridge. From the untidy child musings completed in crayon to the untidy swirls of teenage-angst-driven notes complete with happy faces and stars, each one remains stored between pages of these wonderful time capsules. My favorite is probably the collaborative effort between my brother and me, when we conversed in our butchered Italian phrases. He was a police officer then and awake during the hours the rest of us slept. I used to add to his notes the next day, and he would add to mine, taking days to exhaust a well-worn anecdote. I still laugh when I see the Italian note, and then I cry. It’s such a perfect moment, preserved forever, that it always strikes me as bittersweet. I’m grateful Mom could not bear to part with them because they grant me immediate access to my youth. Sometimes, I catch Mom with misty eyes over the same silly banter. We share a hug and a cup of forbidden cocoa, and then move on to the holiday baking.

It’s these sorts of gems that I look for when I peruse the shelves of a used book store or antique boutique. I remember my first-ever used book purchase was an 1814 leather-bound accounting ledger someone kept of their dry goods transactions. I was all of ten years old at the time, but found the hand-written, dry calculations so intriguing. I had a defined frame of one part of a man’s life, right down to the cost of the last 5lb sack of milled flour. It was when I got it home that I discovered an extra treasure. In the back of the book, where the binding had become loose and created a sort of pocket, I found tucked away within someone’s last will and testament, dated April of 1956. On a small sheet of ruled paper, David bequeathed everything in his possession to his wife Anne and remarked that there was no need to notarize or authenticate his signature. I was addicted then, and still try to only purchase old books if there is some sort of personal notations made within the decaying pages. Not all that long ago, I added a mightily abused 1800’s printed German hymnal to my collection, simply because someone had taken notes in the margins of the book. Although I do not understand the words, I feel a connection with that person, no matter what their background might have been.

So here comes the true point to this essay. As writers, we attempt a connection through the telling of a story, fact or fiction, to an audience of readers. As readers, we will devour volumes of any work that we feel a personal connection with. I think when we find notes like those aforementioned in the margins and on sticky-notes, we feel we’ve hit the jackpot. Or maybe I’m the only one who feels this way. It’s the most tragic sacrifice of moving to the digital age, I fear, as we may never be able to discover a forgotten pressed flower among the digital pages of an eBook.


  1. I agree. There is nothing like the physical paper pages of a book. The older ones are the best for the very reason you tend to find those notes giving us a glimpse into a previous owner's life.

  2. I agree. I have decided to buy "important" books in paper and "fun" books in my ereader. Maybe this is why I kept my books from college with the notes in the margins.

    And now I want to spend the rest of this rainy Saturday in a used bookstore. Thanks for prompting those thoughts.

  3. Beautiful, what an amazing treasury your mother has collected for all of you. :)

  4. Well-used cookbooks aren't so common any more. I use Google for any recepies I need, but I do keep a notebook with the ones that work well and hope one day my girls will use it.

  5. You had me from the very first word. What a great post, and what a lovely keepsake you have in those cookbooks. I once bought a car from my great grandfather, who died several years ago now. Some time later, I found a leather-bound collection of road maps tucked away in the boot (trunk for the non-Australians). There were notes scribbled in the margins and routes traced in red of the journeys my grandparents had taken over the years. Of all the things I could have been given, this was the best gift of all. You're quite right .. it's all about the connection.

    - Nouvelle Fille

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