Old Books

Yesterday while weeding out books for the thrift store, I came across two old books.

The first was The Every Day Cook Book and Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes, written in 1892 by Miss E. Neil. It’s a quirky little book because the printer, Regan Printing House, in Chicago, put the cover on upside down. And inside the cover is a sticker for Wrigley’s Mineral Scouring Soap, sold by grocers everywhere at five cents a bar.

Why do I keep it? Some day when the mega-earthquake hits, I might need a recipe for cooking cow brains. Yes, there is one for that. Seriously though, Miss E. Neil fancied herself a scientist of ‘cookery’. I love the tone of her voice as she talks about the cooking water for potatoes being poisonous. She gives very thoughtful advice on how the mistress of the house should keep a passbook where she writes down her shopping list and the grocer writes in the prices so she can make sure the maid isn’t cheating her.

And then there’s this from her introduction where she is giving tips on maintaining the wood stove fire: ‘Food of every description is wholesome and digestible in proportion as it approaches nearer to the state of complete digestion, or, in other words, to that state termed chyme, whence the chile or milky juice that afterwards forms blood is absorbed, and conveyed to the heart. Now nothing is further from this state than raw meat and raw vegetables. Fire is therefore necessary to soften them, and thereby begin that elaboration which is consummated in the stomach.’

Think about all the women who used this cookbook, worrying about chyme.

The book is a snapshot through the window of time.

Miss E. Neil's tome.

Miss E. Neil’s tome.

The second book is a diary of an old friend of my mother’s, Claire. I’ve posted before about her as she was a very unique woman who made a huge impression on me as a child. I planned to be just like her – a writer and hermit in the woods.

I admit to thinking diaries have to be these esoteric tomes where high lofty thoughts are left for those who follow. Probably why I struggle to write in one. But in reading Claire’s yesterday I realize that, like the cook book, diaries are also snapshots in time.

Claire's handwriting

Claire’s handwriting

Claire wrote about how many eggs she collected that day. What the weather was. What her weight was, her bowling score. How many days late or early her ‘shoes’ came. I used to wonder why she ordered so many shoes when I only saw her in men’s logging boots. I eventually realized ‘shoes’ were her euphemism for her monthly period.

She wrote about her daily thoughts, but in a five-year diary, which meant she had space for only a couple of sentences per day. Some days she simply said ‘A lonely day’.

And then I came across this, on Monday, September 9th, 1963. ‘Hot..89..Whew…all awash! Frank Nay died Saturday. Funeral Wed. 11th … a very sad thing…my arthritic bones all swollen & stiff.’

Why does that stand out to me with such gentle sorrow? I didn’t know until I read this that the day my father died was a Saturday of unseasonably hot weather. I think now of my mother sitting at the hospital with three children under age four, on a hot September day, waiting.

The details of daily life, jotted in a few sentences, can have such impact years down the road, beyond what the diary writer can probably ever imagine.