Love Among the Artifacts

There’s nothing like a good flyleaf inscription. What a joy to find a salutation from an old friend inside the cover of a long-forgotten book. But beware. You might just as easily find a shout from the grave or the embers of ill-fated romance.

I bought a used paperback on Amazon. The inscription, from the author, was personalized: “Sarah & David! Chapter 10 is all about you!” Sarah and David must not have liked what they read. They unloaded it to me for $3.99.

My mother was always after to me to read. She’d tear her hair out trying to get me interested in serious fiction, poetry, murder mysteries—anything other than the Beatles biographies I loved. My mother wanted her kids to read like she did. To her, books were oxygen. Without them, life lacked breath.

Her imprecations were unsuccessful, at least in the short term. My siblings, however, followed her lead. They developed literary appetites and voracious interests. There was a time when I wondered if maybe my sister Colleen had a problem—book addiction. She’s better now.

Even my dad got the book bug. Undiagnosed dyslexia haunted his younger years. He’s made up for it in retirement. Some guys spend their ready cash on golf clubs and cigars. My old man pays for nonfiction. He’s earned it.

For 27 years I’ve been lugging around the complete works of Shakespeare that my mother gave me in high school. It’s a monster—all 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and a parcel of narrative poems squeezed onto 1,263 pages of light paper printed all the way to the margins.

The inscription, in my late mother’s hand, reads, “Dear Matt, May all the world always ‘be a stage’ for your hopes, dreams, and successes. Love, Mom & Dad. Christmas 1990.” The seventh anniversary of her death approaches. The sight of her script—so vivid, so alive, so full of breath—gets me every time.

This business of inscribing books is both charming and macabre. People die; books live on. Scrawling a flyleaf is a down payment on immortality. Think of me, it says. Memento mori.

My grandparents on my mother’s side were devout Catholics. Sadly, few of their descendants stayed connected to the Church. What went wrong? Was it the rebel spirit of the 1960s? Did the relentless secular tilt of American life corrode the family’s ancestral faith?

We’ll never know. Whatever the reason, I became one of the last of mass-going Catholics in the family. When my mother died, her sister—my godmother—gifted me a small cache of religious artifacts that had been passed down through the generations.

It’s a rich inheritance. My gratitude is deep. Included is The Saint Joseph Children’s Missal: An Easy Way of PRAYING THE MASS for Boys and Girls, by Father H. Hoever, S. O. Cist. The tiny volume was once a gift between siblings. Immaculate penmanship commemorates a pregnant moment in the life of both church and family: “Dear Barbara, Merry Christmas, Love Pat, 12/25/59.”

Some say the sixties didn’t start until Kennedy was assassinated, or until the Beatles landed at JFK. In reality, they started a week after my Aunt Pat gave my Aunt Barbara The Saint Joseph Children’s Missal. In some ways, it was all downhill from there.

Prayers and Instructions for Youthful Catholics is a well-preserved mini-book, designed, no doubt, to be tucked into the pocket of a tidy Catholic school uniform. The inscription: “To dear little Breda in remembrance of her confirmation, May 9th, 1928, at St. Luke’s Church. Pray for me, Lovingly, Agnes.”

Breda and Agnes were my mother’s aunts—my grandmother’s sisters, dead these last 30 years. I remember them only as childless old ladies sharing an apartment in Queens. To think: they were once pious little girls.

I know that some Catholics think the sixties and seventies brought an overdue relaxation of the habits of faith embodied by these preconciliar books. They may be right. I can only judge the results. In a big Irish Catholic family like mine, the number of mass-goers is vanishingly small.

I love my family no less for their wandering. I pray, lovingly, that they’ll return someday. I wandered once, too. God has a way of reaching out and grabbing you.

His handwriting is all over us.

From the February 2017 issue of Fairfield County Catholic

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