For the eight years she lived with us my Nana needed two things to make her happy: baseball and books. While her baseball loyalties remained firmly with the Bash Brothers and the Oakland A’s, her reading loyalties were less stringent. Larry McMurtry and Daniel Steel were close companions on my Nana’s bookshelf. Crossword puzzles and National Geographics lounged on the same nightstand, and on the shelves above her bed, each and every western Louis L’Amour put a pen to. Romances? Banished under the bed with the cigarettes we all pretended not to know about.
Nana organized books by most recent use, or, in the case of the romances, by content. To a six-year-old with her first library card Nana’s collection carried no semblance of the order I’d discovered beyond the white pillars that still guard the red doors of the Grass Valley Library. Books lined up like good soldiers on shelves three times my height and the children’s librarian hovered, helpful, and worried, as if the books themselves were her children. And the books! If Nana’s were worn, familiar pets, the “real” library was a zoo of exotic animals.
Nana’s library was her comfort, a balm for old age, an escape from the basement chill of our converted craft room, from the rasp of Granddad’s breath in the twin bed next to her. Page after page, long into the night, while the dog snored and Granddad wheezed, she’d read to find her youth again, her strength again, the rush of sex again. She smoked strong cigarettes and loved strong men with years ahead of them before the stroke made them--made him--an angry wizened infant. The stroke that made them both dependent on their headstrong daughter and her loving mandates. Aerobics?! More fiber?! Less grease?!
When sleep finally came to her, it always came mid-sentence. I’d creep downstairs and find the reading light making a sharp incision in the morning. If the cover of the book resting on her chest featured twisting bodies, swirling titles in gold and scarlet, I’d let the light be and watch for a moment. Nana’s eyes were open slits, crusted, dry. Her breath told me she slept, though I imagined later, after she’d died, that even then she saw me. Even then she watched me, watching her, loved me, loving her. If the cover was an innocuous brown with a safe, block title, I’d reach up, click off the light and tiptoe out again. I never spoke to her about this. I never told anyone.
Today my own library bears a cluttered resemblance to Nana’s. Organization is an afterthought. Books with bar codes and books without are piled in the order I read them. Margaret Atwood, beneath Wallace Stegner, beneath Susan Straight. Cozy. If people live on in memory, my Nana lives also in the careful chaos of my own library. And once in a while I’ll wake in the blue-black early morning; the reading light will be on when I’d thought I’d turned it off; a book will be open on my chest. And I just might hear the sound of baseball in the distance, or, catch a jolt of nicotine. My team is the A’s, but my radio is off. I don’t smoke. I won’t tell you what books I keep under my bed. I trust that Nana won’t either.