When I pull in the driveway, she's there with her fuzzy gray dog, poking through our Little Free Library. I walk towards her as the boys unload their backpacks from the trunk.
Hi! I say.
Hello, she answers. I hope you don't mind that I added some books to your library.
Not at all, I reply, bending down to nuzzle her dog.
I'm Cheryl, I offer. She looks familiar. I think she lives around the corner.
I'm Barbara, she says. And that's Xena.
Hi Xeeeeena, I coo, rubbing Xena's scruffy chin. Xena likes me.
My husband died in September, Barbara then says, so casually I think I've misheard. He left behind cases and cases of science fiction books. I don't know what to do with them all. He never let me get rid of them when he was alive. Would your kids read them?
The boys walk over from the car. Yes, definitely, they say.
Good. I'll drop off another bag tomorrow and leave it by your door, she says.
And she does.
So now we own some books read and loved by a man we never met.
I page through the books, wondering if they'll reveal anything about their owner.
Apart from the obvious, that he loved sci fi, I don't glean much.
Still, I spend a few days thinking about this transfer of ownership. It strikes me as symbolic that we've gotten his books rather than something else. No old timepiece handed down by his grandfather, no baseball mitt from his college years, no coins from worldly travels. Just cheap paperbacks, a dime a dozen, ones we could find in any used bookstore in town.
And yet, he held onto them for years, this man whose name I don't know. He wouldn't let his wife get rid of them until he died. To me, this says something. It says a lot.
Or, maybe, it's simply all I have, all I can go by.
Soon after, I scan my own bookshelves, lingering longest on the cookbooks in my living room. If some stranger were to get them years from now, what could they tell about me?
That I love to bake. That I'm fond of vegetables. That I grill.
There's a shelf of food memoirs, fifteen, maybe more. Another shelf groans with the weight of The Time Life Good Cook series. I binge-bought them on eBay my second day of culinary school. Cookies & Crackers. Beef & Veal. Pasta.
A subset of books in this room holds extra meaning.
I pull down books by Lora Brody and Flo Braker first, flipping each open to its title page. In The New England Table, Lora, the first person I worked for after changing careers, scrawled: "For Cheryl: With gratitude and affection. Your work made this book the best it could be."
In The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, Flo wrote: "To Cheryl: Who always bakes simply perfectly." She gave this book to me the day we met, before we knew each other. The next book, Baking for All Occasions, she gave me later, after we'd worked together: "Sweet appetite + thank you!" The thank you is underlined twice. I smile at the two dark lines.
I scramble through the shelves now, pulling down one book, then another, intuiting which ones are signed. I pull down Tara Mataraza Desmond's first book, Almost Meatless. And her second, Choosing Sides. She signed both, the second more meaningfully than the first, a testament to how our friendship has blossomed and grown since we met.
There's Jill O'Connor's book Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, signed: "My fellow Greenbrier alum... Indulge!" which time-stamps the year we first met, 2007, at a conference that's now defunct.
Nancie McDermott signed Southern Cakes, her inscription as warm and quirky as she is: "To Cheryl: The cutest, smartest, curliest, and coolest kitten in puppetland, with admiration and all good wishes. Let's stay friends!"
One of my favorite inscriptions is from someone I don't know at all. Suzanne Goin, in Sunday Suppers at Lucques, wrote simply, "For Cheryl, Don't wait til Sunday!" A generic line, for sure, but her young daughter attended the book signing with her that day and scribbled over her mother's words in bright purple marker. I trace it now with my fingers, marking time with each loop. She's older now, that child. We all are.
You see, books, whether dime-store paperbacks or weighty hardbacks still in their jackets, always hold meaning. They tell of a life, somehow, in some way, whether known or unknowable. They're not just paper and ink, or dots on some screen.
And while I'm sorry Barbara's husband died, I'm glad his books survived, at least for now, at least a little while longer.