The Stories We Take With Us by Wendy Scalfaro
“What about my books?” my mom asked. She was in hospice, and still coherent. Although that would last only another day or two.
“Do you want me to take care of them?” I asked.
“What do you want me to do with them? Donate them?”
“I don’t know.” She closed her eyes. This question was too much for her to contemplate at this point.
“I’ll go through them, and save some for the children.” This seemed to satisfy her.
While my older brother took care of the legal and financial details of our mother’s final days, I knew that, as the librarian, I was in charge of deciding what to do with her book collection when she died.
Less than a week later, I started my task. I saved the Stephen King hardcovers. He was a favorite author of Mom’s and mine, and we shared his books constantly when I was a teen. I also saved her beloved Anne McCaffrey books because…well, they were her beloved Anne McCaffrey books. And I set aside the Andre Norton titles for my 8-year-old science-fiction-loving son to read much later.
In Mom’s storage area, I found a few boxes of her mother’s science fiction gems. Most were too moldy and falling apart to save. I kept a few that had Grandma’s name inscribed in her handwriting, as a way to hold on to a bit of her. These books stored in boxes are the physical remnants of the stories that were stored in Grandma’s memories. Is it ridiculous to imagine she took these stories with her when she passed?
My younger brother carted the rest of the boxes of books to the public library. I didn’t have the room for them. I think Mom would be happy with this decision, regardless of whether the library sold them or added them to their collection. Each story now available for the next person to enjoy.
I can’t help but wonder what happens to stories once we’ve read them. In one regard, they still have their permanence there on the page, in neat black lettering on a whiteish background. The words don’t go away once you’ve read them. They’re still there if you re-read the story, or go back over a part for clarification. But those are just words, right?
What about the story?
When we read a story, it creates another kind of permanence in our minds. We hold that world inside of us. It shapes who we are and how we feel and think. Once read, a story can’t be unread. Unlike the physical book, we can take stories with us wherever we go. We read the words on the pages of a book, but we absorb the whole of the story into your souls.
Each reader has their own iteration of a story. The elements of stories affect each reader differently. Some students will be deeply impacted by what they read. Think of how many people’s lives have been affected – are still affected every day – by Harry Potter and his friends. My own children are experiencing that world now. Two years ago, a twelfth-grader told me that she had just finished reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She cried. She pronounced it her “favorite book.” It was the book that cemented her decision to major in English in college and become a writer one day. Just last year, another senior shared a short story with me that he had written. It wasn’t great, but it had potential. He was influenced by Poe, Homer, and other classical literature. He’s a deep thinker, and it showed in his writing, even while he’s still trying to figure things out. Those stories and poems he read swirled around in his mind, making connections to each other and to his own thoughts. I believe this is true for all of us.
It’s been more than two years since my Mom died, and I still think about all of these books that I sorted through. The ones I saved, dispersed, discarded. The ones with my loved one’s name written in perfect penmanship on the title page. The ones with a scrap of paper for a bookmark (still reading? re-reading?).
Like the boxes in which we store old books, we are the carriers of the stories we read. The words, characters, and settings become a part of who we are. They impact our future reading choices. They interact with our ideas, elicit emotions, and stick to our bones. We can take them with us, perhaps even after we’re no longer on this earth. I like the image of my Mom and Grandmother re-experiencing their favorite fictional realms in the afterlife, engaged in Heavenly book discussions.
So during the school year, when students become a part of your classroom or library, you have the opportunity to help them discover amazing stories. If they’re lucky, and you’ve loaned them a book that worked out an issue that the student connects with, or exposed them to diverse characters and cultures, they’ll come away with a greater understanding of society. Not only will they think differently about their world, but they’ll take those stories with them.
Wendy Scalfaro is a high school and public librarian in Central New York, where she and her husband are raising two children who love reading, learning, and exploring life. Wendy is currently writing her first book, a middle grade historical novel based on her maternal grandmother’s childhood spent in an orphanage. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @wscalfaro. She blogs book reviews and all things reading and writing at https://wscalfaro.wordpress.com/.