In the pre-holiday bustle of the neighborhood bookstore, I wander from table to bookshelf, idly reading the staff recommendations. Although I came to buy books for my boys and a friend or two, after a few minutes I realize I’m really shopping for the dead. Would my dad–this will now be our third Christmas without him–have preferred the new book on J. Edgar Hoover or the one about a naval mutiny? Maybe my mother–this makes Christmas number five without her–would have liked the new Elizabeth Strout. This year my friend and mother-in-law is added to the ranks of those who will no longer be at the Christmas table or even on the Christmas zoom.
In her last week of life, my mother-in-law said from her hospital bed, “Mimi sends the best books.” We were reading aloud the Louise Penny/Hillary Clinton thriller that I’d picked out for us and brought from home. The excitement of the story and the vaguely disguised political references temporarily distracted her from her pain. But once she decided on hospice, international intrigue lost its appeal and she asked for the last pages of Gatsby, which I read aloud one evening at twilight. It was amazingly appropriate: the green light, the dock and dark water, as she faced something surely “commensurate with our capacity for wonder.”
My mother wanted to hear Thomas Wolfe at the end of her life: Dear Fox, Old Friend, thus we have come to the end of the road we were to go together. But in life, she liked a good mystery or a family drama. As a teenager, I was regularly dispatched to the nearby branch library to pick out books for her. “Get me a really good one,” she instructed. I looked at the book jackets through crinkled cellophane and did my best choosing two or three, fingers crossed that one would be a hit.
My mom wanted to know she’d been considered when she received Christmas gifts and choosing a book for someone does take time. Sometimes I took the easy way out, buying the first potential present that caught my eye–red satin pajamas when I knew she only wore nightgowns or a purse that was more my style than hers. These gifts she would meet with graciousness. (I found them in their original packaging upon her death.) But if there was no book, she’d be miffed. “Why didn’t you get a book for me?” I’d delineate the crush of my Christmas life: the menu, the stockings, the straggling Christmas cards, etcetera, etcetera. She’d be mad but didn’t hold a grudge. I’d make a quick repair for her birthday, which came soon after Christmas.
And my dad? I think he would have chosen poetry at the end had we been fortunate enough to be together. But under the tree, he liked to find an interesting bit of history, an investigation into physics or the natural world. He read one book about the volcano Krakatoa three times. At one point, my mom claimed he didn’t read the books I gave him and told me I was wasting money buying them. I don’t know whether she believed this–he was an insomniac and often read late at night while she was asleep–or whether it was an odd manifestation of jealousy. When I asked him, his eyebrows lifted: “I read every word.”
When he was living alone, I’d bring him books or shop for some soon after I arrived for a visit. “Find me a tale of the sea, Miss Muffet,” he’d sing out, using a never retired childhood nickname. Today I see several such tales on the history display table. I could get one for Christmas and save one back for a birthday. His 103rd will be coming up.
These specters on my shoulder get heavy and I sink into a chair wedged between the coffee table books and the poetry section. I spot an author my mother-in-law Julie liked, a new one, in hardback. That’s an easy choice to check off this unusual shopping list. I check my watch as the sun dips low, light fading through spindly winter trees. I need to head home and dress for a friend’s holiday party. The to-do list is no shorter thanks to this ghostly reverie. Is there not one book I can buy for the living this afternoon? No, say the greedy ghosts. Books for the living will have to wait. Your cards will get mailed and online shopping solves many problems. Tonight, they say, you can rejoin the living as you toast the season. But today is our day in the bookstore, our moment in your memory.