It’s an upsetting experience to sort through and plan to dispose of a relative’s lifelong collection of books. Maybe it’s not upsetting at the moment of pulling the books off the shelves. I certainly kept my cool last night when I was going through my mother’s extremely extensive collection of modern Russian history books. I also remained calm when dumping a batch of religion books into boxes to take to my house and sort through. But today, as I did the sorting, there was an emotional tug. Not only were the topics a view into my mother’s very thoughtful spiritual life, but several of the books were signed on the endpapers. A bible of my grandfather’s. A gospel parallels textbook from my grandmother’s happy days at Vassar. A book my aunt gave the governess who came when my mother was little and stayed the rest of her life. A book the governess gave my mother, affectionately inscribed, containing the writings of St. Augustine.
A pile of mundane novels, decorating and gardening books, or outdated recipe books would be easy to toss. (And, no, I don’t mean literally. All books are sent to good homes.) But the collection of a keenly intelligent, highly educated woman who spent a lot of time thinking about very serious issues deserves care.
The books still have to be moved on. No one in the family wants to keep them all, just as we can’t keep every book with my father’s signature in it. As much as we want to hold onto our memories of people we love, and we want to honor the memories of people we never even knew, we can’t be the museum of other people’s lives. Not even the lives of our closest relatives. It’s fine to keep some tokens to remember them by. But not everything.
Still, it’s not easy.