Today is my mother’s birthday – the second since she died – and I am still new at the task of finding a way to mark the day now that she isn’t here to be fussed over. But yesterday, a happy thought came to me: today would be as good a day with any to spend time with one of the most intriguing items that we found when we were tidying my mother’s things after she died, a little booklet that belonged to my grandmother.
The booklet is small – about the size of an index card – and it bears the title ‘My Rust Craft Calendar and Memory Jogger for 1951′, along with the imprint of Lustig’s Book Store, where my mother worked as a shop assistant when she was a student. The motto’Through the year with cards of character’ along the bottom margin suggests that the booklet was printed by a greeting-card company. A space was left for the shops who sold the cards to put their own details on the cover – perhaps at the card company’s expense – before giving it to their customers. I wonder how many of those customers saved the booklet for a half-century!?
But turning to January in the calendar, you can see why. Your eye naturally falls, as you open the booklet, to the column for Saturdays in the Calendar – it is all the way over on the right, of course, so it is the first thing you see – and there is only one entry in that column, for Saturday, 20 January, the third Saturday of January. Here is what it says, in my grandmother’s hand: ‘Mama Died – Midnight – Tuscaloosa, Ala. – 1936’. Later, in a different pen: ‘Born 1855’.
Then, when you reach December, the third Saturday has better news: the entry for 15 December reads: ‘Margaret Robb Shook – Born 1925 – Tuscaloosa Ala. – DruidCity Hospital’. My great-grandmother’s death and my own mother’s birth – marking the two ends of the year. It seems that my grandmother took the phrase ‘memory jogger’ in a way rather different than the Rust Craft sales team intended. She used the little booklet to create a historical summary of our family’s deaths and lives, beginning with the birth of her aunt Mattie Kaeiser Moody in 1853, and ending – quite charmingly, from my perspective! – with my own birth in 1960.
The booklet makes bittersweet reading. For most of my grandmother’s life-time, penicillin had not yet been invented, so there are many disturbingly early deaths. Two of my grandmother’s own sons: Gilliam, born 20th September, 1915, lived only nineteen days. George Andrew – named after his father’s brother but called ‘Andrew’ for his mother’s maiden name like so many Southern boys before and after him – died of pneumonia aged eight, a death that still reverberates in our family’s collective psyche although those who knew him have all been dead for some time. My grandmother’s entry for 20 March reads: ‘”Punkin” died – 1923 – he would have been 9 years old in June.’ To the untrained eye, these private tragedies are lost in the hum of the weddings and birthdays of the wider kindred.
I know from other sources that my grandmother was something of a historian. After her mother’s death, she embarked on an oral history project with Aunt Matt, her mother’s older sister, collaborating on a memoir of the two sisters’ childhood in Alabama during the Civil War. So it makes sense that my grandmother kept a record of the principal events of her own life-time, and there is something strangely lovely about the slightness of it – not a monument, just a personal working-out of all that had happened on her watch.
I don’t know why 1951 was the year for this exercise in memory – perhaps it was the only year the booklets were printed, or the only year one came into her hands. It may have been while my mother was working at Lustig’s Book Store.
I don’t remember the dates of my mother’s tenure at Lustig’s – probably the mid to late forties, but it could have been as late as 1951. One story she told of an incident during her time there would gain an alarming twist if it took place at the height of the McCarthy era, when anxieties about communism were at their peak. A customer had ordered a copy of Marx’s Communist Manifesto – an entirely normal request for a college-town bookshop. The age of the customer did not come down as part of the story, and it has to be said that my mother’s reaction to this request would make rather more sense if he was an undergraduate rather than someone older than herself. In any event, on hearing the title of the book requested, she put on a long face and said she would have to ask the owner’s advice whether it was permitted to order such a book. Evidently she thought this was a great joke, but when the owner found out, she received a reprimand. This is understandable – even if the story is from the mid 1940s, when my mother was a student at the University, I can imagine you wouldn’t want your shop assistants to make people jumpy about what they were reading.
I know from other sources that Lustig’s Bookstore was a cultural institution in Tuscaloosa – bookshops are often a life-line of ideas in a community. A while back, I came across a quirky review of William Faulkner’s Light in August which told how Maxine Lustig introduced a generation of Tuscaloosans to the literary fulminations that were coming out of that other college town – Oxford, Mississippi – in those days. I believe that most of the books that my mother loved in childhood and young adulthood came from the shop.
I don’t suppose I will ever solve the mystery of why this particular booklet sparked my grandmother’s imagination in the way it did. But I am grateful that it survived, hidden – perhaps forgotten – in my mother’s keeping for a half-century. And I like to imagine that some of its secrets about my mother, and my grandmother before her, have yet to be revealed.