While at the thrift shop last week, I spotted a paperback copy of one of the books from Jame's Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small series. Do you know these books? My grandmother loved them and always told me I should try them, but although I devoured just about every other book and magazine in her and Papa's house, I somehow could never get into Herriot's writings. I truly tried. I read enough of them as a kid--then as a pre-teen, then as a teenager, then as a twenty-something--to remember, without even needing to skim through the book's yellowed pages for a refresher at Goodwill last week, how the veterinary surgeon/narrator was always being telephoned in the middle of the night by farmers in need of his help and how he always seemed to be traveling and working in the cold in the wee hours of the morning. Grandma would urge me to take one or more of her Herriot books home with me after a visit, but I never did. "I just can't get into them," I'd apologize to her. I loved animals and nature and memoirs and history and (the idea of) England but still couldn't connect with her beloved book series. It's just like that sometimes. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was another of Grandma's favorites, and she was always disappointed that I couldn't get into that story either.
I would instead leave her and Papa's house with a paper grocery bag full of her "Best Loved" and "America's Favorite" poetry books, her biographies of John or Jacqueline Kennedy, her Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and her Golden Press nature field guides. While looking at the tree book at their house, I would hold it up and ask Papa after every other page, "Have you seen this tree before? Have you ever seen one of these? Do they have these around here?" Ditto for the American Birds book. But the Wildflowers book was all Grandma and I, the two of us curled up on "her" chair in the corner of the living room or rocking side by side on the floral barkcloth-cushioned front porch swing as we slowly turned the pages. Neither Grandma nor I were ever people who fell asleep easily or quickly, and it was while we were looking at the illustrated flowers one day that she told me that when she was in bed and couldn't sleep, she would try to think of a flower that begin with each letter of the alphabet. It is funny what you remember. When the time came in 2001 to help my parents clean out Papa and Grandma's house, I left behind many of their books because I assumed others in the family would also want them and I felt the person who had gifted my grandparents with certain books should be the one to hold on to them now. I saved the "Disney's Wonderful World of Reading" hardcovers that Grandma had read to me before I knew how, and that I would later read and reread to her, in our afghan-covered reading chair, and I took a few more things from her bookcases, but I forced myself to be fair and let go of the rest.
It was bittersweet when I finally read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn years ago. Grandma was right and I was wrong: It is one of my favorite books. If Grandma had still been alive, it would have been something we would have talked about, or if we weren't going to see each other soon, I would have mentioned it in one of my letters to her. I wish I could tell her that just recently, I shared with Mike Francie's mom's wise way of helping Francie feel "casually extravagant" by letting her dump her grown-cold coffee down the drain. I love that. I also love thinking that Grandma knew me in a way that I didn't yet know myself as she watched me pull and then re-shelf books from her collection all those years. She wouldn't be surprised, then, to hear that I bought the paperback of the James Herriot book last week--and that I am loving it too. I have raced through the first forty-four chapters and will soon be done with the rest, and I've been bookmarking used copies on amazon of his other works so I can buy them with Christmas money later this month. I want more, more, more! Yorkshire is now home of the "World of James Herriot visitor attraction," I've learned this past week. And an online shop of Herriot merchandise is, they say, coming soon! While I can't buy Grandma a trinket from the store or museum and it is now too late for more book discussions out on the porch swing, I believe she's somehow shared my excitement this past week as I dip into Mr. Herriot's tales of performing Caesareans on sheep and pulling the village tailor's pins from the pads of his dog's paws. I really think she knows. As I cuddle up with the book in my own afghan-covered reading chair this week, it only seems right to believe, given all she knew before and all she knew all along, that somehow, Grandma knows.