Old Books Smell Like Time to Me
Books form the foundation of my life — along with children, family, nature, dogs, and friends — if you’re curious.
I have eight special books I’ve cared for and moved with me over the last fifty years. I’ve packed and hauled them from Alaska to Arizona to New Mexico and finally to Texas.
Unpacking them the other day, excavating memories, and pondering truth
I wondered, Why had I kept these eight books? What is the true story behind why I’ve kept these particular ones, some for more than sixty years?
I’m writing my memoir, which begins when I was turning four, and my father had gone to Alaska without the family. We were left behind in California while he looked for a house. My mother gave me a book called Daddy Comes Home by Charlotte Steiner for my birthday gift.
Hey, why not take a look at that book since the story begins with that birthday? I thought.
It was carefully packed away with my other oldest books, Nixie Bunny in Workaday-Land, which had been my mother’s, Timothy Crunchett, that my father read me when I was small, and Whitey’s Sunday Horse that made me want a horse.
Gently cracking open the faded red cover with its mended spine, the familiar scent of time escaped. Of course, to me, time smells like well-read books and old paper.
Inside was my mother’s still-familiar writing.
Though she’s been dead for twenty years, her birthday inscription from long ago remains.
June 1957. To my Darling Cynthia while her Daddy is away in Anchorage, Alaska. We’re waiting in Glendora, California for him to send for us. Soon, you will have your real 4th birthday and you will plan to see your Beloved Daddy- just like the little girl in this book. Love, Mother
Why not take a few pictures of the inside of the book for social media? I thought to myself.
So for the first time since I was a small girl, I read the book.
It’s an innocent story about a little girl, Mary, who is four years old. “But that is big enough to be a real help, her mother says.”
The book continues with cheerful illustrations of freckled little Mary pushing her baby brother in his baby buggy, picking apples, and even catching a lizard as a gift for her Daddy who is coming home from some distant location.
Suddenly, my stomach clenched with the old familiar fear I had when, as a child, I misbehaved. My mother had been obsessed with dolls.
Part of the story I’d somehow overlooked was right there.
“Then she hurried into her room. She undressed all her dolls and washed their clothes. She took special care of her best doll, Susie. Mary was very proud of Susie in her clean clothes. ‘Daddy will think you are a good girl, Susie,’ she said.”
She really wanted her six children to be living baby dolls and became impatient once she could no longer control our every move. She gave me dolls and then became angry if they weren’t perfectly cared for, and especially if their clothes were dirty.
How had my mother found this book?
Little Mary was the storybook character she had chosen to mold me into, always cheerful, helpful, and as obsessed with dolls and their clean clothes as my mother was.
With curly ringlets and dimples, I was an agreeable, outgoing child. She gave me dolls, and I played with them, though I’d rather have had a dump truck like my brother.
I’m sure the author meant the book to be an innocent story about a helpful child, as we were all meant to be back then in the days of children should be seen and not heard. But it seemed malevolent to me.
Perhaps I’ll dare look at the other books another day.
When I was seven, I brought a classmate home.
This was momentous as I’d never had a friend before. My mother met me on the porch, “How could you think you could have a friend over to play? I was cleaning your room today and saw all your dolls’ clothes are dirty.”
I crumbled to the step as she sent my friend away.
She rewarded me for being helpful and always taking care of others. I became the perfect codependent, able to foresee what my mother needed before she even asked. When Dad said, “Mom’s sick,” and I heard her crying in bed all day, I stayed home from school to watch my little brothers.
Children are quick to learn what brings them praise, safety, and even a perverted sense of love.
So I tried to always be helpful, acquiescent, and thin.
I gave up trying to please my mom when I was twelve but was forty before realizing my mother’s obsessions didn’t have to remain my own.
My mother’s mental illness was never diagnosed or treated.
In the 1950s, ignorance about mental health meant that extreme stigma and fear surrounded it. Women may have had quiet nervous breakdowns, but people with mental health problems were considered crazy. On the other hand, the obstetrician gave my mother amphetamines for weight loss when she was pregnant.
There were no mental health or child abuse hotlines to call as her depression worsened. She spent days in bed sobbing and her increasingly psychotic episodes threatened our safety and nobody knew.
Writing a Memoir Hurts.
Childhood monsters of loss, sadness, and pain might hide under the bed.
I’m so glad society is beginning to realize that mental health is just as integral as physical health to our quality of life. Living with people with untreated mental illness is a severe traumatic experience for children. It is one of the risk factors measured in the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale.
If, like me, you lived with a mentally ill parent, you know it has lifelong consequences. Years of therapy and work have helped though my siblings and I will always have scars. I am thankful that with courage, resilience, love, and work—we’re mostly okay.
If you are concerned about a loved one, yourself, or especially any parent—please don’t wait, call for help. There are hotlines today.
Cindy grew up on a homestead in Alaska, where she developed a profound appreciation for nature and a passion for life. Join the conversation.