“Where did you get this book?” The guest waved the hardback above her head like a New Yorker hailing a cab, and with almost the same sense of urgency. She had just returned from dinner with her daughter and granddaughter and made a special trip downstairs to inquire about the book. I’d been thinking about my grandmother as I often did when using the silver that once belonged to her. Setting the dining room table for breakfast, I concentrated on pleating a napkin into an accordion, slipped it through one of her silver napkin rings, and spread it into a fan. The woman’s question startled me from my reverie.
Small, almost frail, probably in her mid to late seventies, the woman looked young to be the grandmother of a student entering college. Her full brown hair matched the color of deep-set eyes—eyes that entrapped me, staring, waiting for an answer. She quivered with intensity. I tried unsuccessfully to read her emotional tone. Not exactly accusatory. She seemed curious but tentative as if she were holding something back.
I looked at the book she held in her hand: True Love by Robert Fulghum.
“My friend Jeanie sent me that book,” I said. “Jeanie’s always going to yard sales. She sent a bunch of books one summer to inspire me to keep writing my stories—a few novels, memoirs, and a couple by Erma Bombeck. I’m writing a book about our bed and breakfast.”
I thought I remembered an inscription, an address label or name inside the cover. Maybe she thought I’d stolen the book. I felt like I had to explain. I nattered on.
“Jeanie padded the books with three pairs of wild paisley pants, rolled-up to keep the books from shifting in the box. I don’t know why she buys me pants; they were probably twenty-five cents and she couldn’t resist. She’s a compulsive recycler like I am.”
The books by Erma Bombeck rated a place next to my bedside. I appreciated five or ten minutes of her humor before falling to sleep—light reading to tire my eyes out to the same level of fatigue my body felt at the end of a long workday. I’d picked up True Love one night when I burned with a high fever from a vicious flu. But unable to concentrate and with so little time to read, I shelved it along with the others Jeanie had sent in the Abijah Miller Room bookcase for the use of the guests.
“Where does your friend Jeanie live?” my guest asked.
“She lives in Sacramento, but she also has a camp in Vermont, on Lake Dunmore. She could have gotten the book anywhere.”
“It has an inscription inside, on the first page: To Mom, Happy Thanksgiving / Christmas 1997 Love, Roger.” She held out the book, pointing to the words.
I hadn’t paid attention to the inscription, but now I wondered who Roger was, and was he so cheap he wanted this one book to count for two occasions? Then I envisioned this being a long-standing joke between him and his mother. Suddenly I liked Roger, picturing him repeating this private joke, year after year with his mom. What a thoughtful, sensitive son to buy this nice gift for his mother.
“There’s a return label on the inside cover,” she pointed out.
Pleasant Grove, Ca.
If this was a mystery, I had no answers. My blank look must have reflected my confusion. She studied the inscription a moment more before enlightening me.
“Roger was my husband. This is his handwriting.”
At first I didn’t understand what she was saying to me, and once I understood, I wasn’t sure if I believed her. Maybe she was senile. If not, what a weird coincidence! I hadn’t spent enough time with this woman to determine if she were in her right mind. But why would she make this up? Certainly not to abscond with a free book.
Her eyes sparkled and her gaze focused inward. The quivering continued. I worried
she might collapse.
“Let’s sit down,” I suggested.
I guided her to the parlor where she sank into the brocade loveseat, and I pulled up the wooden rocker so it was close enough to hear her story. Our knees almost touched as we sat together.
“He must have given this book to his mother; that seems like him. They both liked to read, especially short stories. Roger died less than two years ago. It’ll be two years this December.” Her voice wavered. It sounded like the wound was still fresh.
“His mother died long before he did,” she said more casually. “She lived in Briar Creek, NY, along the St. Lawrence. They had someone come in and handle the estate. Her books could have gone anywhere.”
It looked like she was drifting, taking her own path through time, her thoughts traveling like the book, in mysterious ways, taking this unlikely turn, detouring there, landing far afield somewhere in the distance. She gazed at the fireplace like she was studying the intricate medallion Brigham Young had carved almost two hundred years before. He was only sixteen at the time, nobody special. And now this mantelpiece gracing our home had historic significance. I wondered about the meaning we place on the objects we cherish, and how that meaning can change with time or discovery.
“Roger was the most loving man I’ve ever known. We weren’t married long—only seven years. It was a second marriage for both of us. He and I had been married to a sister and brother. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas together for years, went to the same weddings, birthdays, and funerals. We were family. But we both had bad marriages. Our spouses cheated on us. Must have been a family trait.” Her snicker sounded bitter.
“Eventually both of us divorced. I had two teenage daughters to raise, and the divorce left me a single mother with little income. I had to find work, and I had no skills or experience. This daughter was wild.” She nodded her head in the direction of the room upstairs. “She got pregnant and dropped out of college. It was really hard. Roger would call and we’d commiserate. He’d drive six hours to visit me, and he helped with all the projects in my house. Sometimes he’d even send money. He knew I needed it, but I never asked.”
She straightened a bit, seeming to remember the strength required to get through those difficult times. But the softness in her eyes and the gentle curve of her mouth told of her vulnerability and spoke of the gratitude she felt for Roger’s help.
“Then one day, must have been eight or nine years later, after working on my plumbing, before his long drive back to his house, he looked at me and said, ‘You know, I think we should get married.’
“And I said, ‘to who?’” She burst out laughing. “I didn’t get it; I had no idea. I wasn’t used to thinking about him like that. But he was such a good man. I told him I’d think about it.”
I laughed with her as she became more animated by her own tale. She wasn’t senile, and I no longer doubted her sanity. The rocker pressed against the old floorboards breaking the silence with a squeak and a pop.
“Time passed. Roger called every week and drove monthly to visit and help me with the house. After about a year, I figured I’d thought about his proposal long enough. I asked him one day if the offer was still on the table.”
“‘Absolutely,’” he said, “‘when would you like to get married?’”
“Soon,” I said, “very soon.”
Her eyes changed focus and when she looked at me and smiled, it seemed like she was pulling her thoughts from past to present.
“We were married the next week. I’m so glad we didn’t wait. It turned out we didn’t have much time. I loved every minute of our life together. He was a good man, so loving. For the last year or so, I’ve felt like he’s left me, left without keeping in touch, without saying good-bye. But this strange coincidence, having this book with his handwriting in my room—he’s sent me a message. I know he has; I can feel it. His true love endures even though he’s gone. That’s what he’s saying. His love is with me still.”
She looked spent, jolted into this incredible discovery, reliving the emotion of all those years and memories. She slumped on the sofa exhausted.
I’d been whipped on a roller coaster ride from worry to incredulity, from skepticism to openness, from wariness to empathy for this woman and her story, and finally to triumph and jubilation. Somehow, I felt depleted, too.
This book that had no significance to me beyond a thoughtful gift from a friend, had traveled a circuitous route to a bookshelf in my guest room and had changed a woman’s life, delivering a message to her from someone she’d loved and lost.
I handed her the book. “This belongs to you. Please take it.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Of course I am. You have the book, Roger’s love, and his handwritten words. And I have the story for my book—of you and Roger, and your True Love.”