For as long as I could remember, Mere lived in a small brick building on a beautiful tree lined street on the Upper West Side. I loved visiting there. Before my parents divorced we
like it. After the divorce I spent at least one weekend every month there.
In the lobby, Hector, the door man, hugged me. “Sorry, baby. We miss her already.”
Riding up inside the little elevator to the fourth floor was surreal. I had done this a million times. As I approached the apartment door, I thought I heard her footsteps, a quick muffled step when she was wearing those comfortable slippers she so loved. For a moment, I really expected her to open the door and squeeze me with her usual greeting “…and how’s my girl?” Inside the sunlit living room, the antique leaf table would be set with paper thin flowered tea cups and mismatched china plates. Usually a basket of oatmeal cookies would sit next to my mug. The smell of fresh brewed coffee, Mere’s favorite, would come from the small kitchen.
Now instead of relaxing on the fat maroon tapestry couch, I sat in disbelief in a wing chair by the window wondering how this could have happened. In every room book cases held my grandmother’s personal library, filled with a lifetime of reading. An eclectic set of books a testament to her varied tastes and interests. Some rare first editions, several autographed copies of writers my grandmother met in her forty year career as a New York City librarian. Many books my grandmother just loved. With so many book stores closing, some were orphans that Mere had simply saved from the trash. My laptop contains all my contacts, files, music. I consciously live paper free but now I inherited all these books.
I got up from the chair and looked at the titles of the books, Let the Great World Spin, Ulysses, Pride and Prejudice. I suddenly felt guilty. My grandmother had done so much to make books part of my life.
Ruiz had asked me about how I felt about them. I was honest when I told him I use to love to read. Definitely Mere was a big part of that. When I lived in New York I used to sleep over Mere’s almost every Saturday night. I was in fifth grade when we started having coffee together. She would fix me the Zoe special – loaded with more milk than coffee.
Sipping the hot coffee from mugs, we would have our book talks on her big mahogany bed. One night I remember laughing at the character’s name, Mrs. What’s It from the book,
A Wrinkle in Time. This ignited a list of names we created for people who annoyed us in real life like my math teacher, Mr. Careless Errors cost you your Grade. Another night we ate a half a bag of chocolate chip cookies discussing how my problems could be fixed with books. If I could only transfer to Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school, a lot of my troubles making friends could be solved. Who could resist a friend with a magical wand in her back pack?
I particularly remembered one discussion when I told Mere how my life would be greatly improved if I could switch my dad with Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird.
She explained, “Well Zoe, you probably know Atticus a lot better than your Dad who isn’t one to tell you what he’s thinking.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Well your dad might not want to tell you what is on his mind. Lots of people like to keep their thoughts private or maybe they’re afraid to share their ideas.”
“You may not understand or maybe you’ll laugh at them. The magic of books is you get to roam around inside the characters’ heads and discover what they are thinking and feeling.
“ITH,” I said, “pretty cool, Mere”
“ITH?” she repeated.
“Inside The Head, of course.”
Yeah, once upon a time, I really did love books, so what happened? Certainly even after I moved to Boston, UPS packages came in the mail with books Mere thought I would enjoy. But I was busy with Instagram, twitter and online shopping. The book would lie on my night table, I’d read a chapter or two but then not get back to it for a while or not at all. Maybe the black and white print made reading kind of slow and silent. Reading just made me think too much. After my parents’ divorce, I definitely didn’t want to think.
I told Mere I wasn’t into paper. Of course then e books appeared on my i-Pad which I kind of ignored. Now Mere’s library of more than 700 hundreds books was mine. Why had she given this to me? Just as I was sinking into that dark pit of remorse, I spotted the moth. Could it be the same one moth from St. Francis?
“Mere,” I called out loud.
The moth flew around the room and over the big mahogany bed. Then it flew into the cardboard box sitting on the upper shelf in the closet. I stood on my toes and stretched. I had to follow it. As I barely pulled the edge, the box crashed onto the floor. Pictures, graduation programs, playbills, and papers tumbled out onto the rug. For a librarian, my grandmother wasn’t organized at all about her own history.
Lots of letters, that dying, intimate art of communication, lay on the floor. Mere loved to write letters on that beautiful small pine secretary, in the corner of her bedroom. I walked over to the desk, admiring its old world charm. Early in December every year Mere sat at that little desk. Her short broad fingers cradled a special black and gold Le Blanc pen which she used to write out her Christmas cards. Maybe my overactive imagination was at work, but when I looked down at the desk Mere’s Le Blanc pen rolled across the top.
Was Mere still here with me now? Where was that moth? I opened the desk and my eye caught a pile of letters wrapped in a faded blue ribbon. I quickly grabbed the letters and as I leafed through them, one in particular jumped out at me because of the strong handwriting in black ink. Curious, I unfolded the letter and read on.
Arrived early this morning. Outside the hotel is a delightful little garden, the kind you love, with chairs where we could sit and read the newspapers until you can no longer control your desire to come to bed with me.
The idea of my grandmother with a lover in bed was just too much information. I must have reread the letter five times. I just couldn’t believe it. Who was this guy? I looked at the bottom of the letter at the closing, “Yours, E.” I stared at the handwritten E with a flourish at the tip. The rapid movement of circular movements in the line clearly communicated the dynamic energy of the writer.
The fact that my grandmother had an affair started to ignite my curiosity. She rarely mentioned dating, no less a sexual relationship. Mere definitely never spoke about any man in particular. But she saved these letters all these years. Obviously, she still had feelings for him. I tried to match this note with the one Madeline gave me in the library. One had been written so long ago. The handwriting didn’t seem very similar. Was this the same man who had come back into Mere’s life after all those years? Perhaps she had two lovers? I sat on Mere’s bed so alone. I thought Mere and I were so close and now I realized that she never shared some of the most important and exciting parts of her life .
Gradually a familiar sound of something metallic being dragged across the floor in the upstairs apartment disrupted my thinking. Percy, Mere’s cat, was up to her nocturnal routine. Every night the cat would retrieve some piece of Mere’s laundry, usually her bra, and drag it around the apartment. It amused Mere. She had rescued Percy from a vacant storefront on the Lower East Side. Though the cat hid from most people, Percy curled up comfortably in Mere’s lap while my grandmother read for hours and hours.
The sound of the cat reminded me that I had to hurry. Turning the lock on the front door, I clearly heard Mere’s voice whisper, “No.”
No? What are you talking about? In my mind, I was now arguing with her.
No - Don’t what? Read your love letters, talk to Horatio, reach out to the dead looking for you? Check on your cat? You loved that cat. You want me to make sure Percy is cared for. So I disregarded the “No” and ran upstairs to see how the cat was doing.