Written by Anna Dolliver
I spent my winter break surrounded by stories both spoken and concrete. Over the past few months, my grandmother has been sifting through and donating objects around her ranch to make more space. After decluttering cabinets with my mother and unearthing old records with my uncle, she invited me to help her with the bookshelves. We spent a few days sorting through the bookshelves in her storeroom, then her hallway, then her bedroom, then her living room. To my excitement, Tennyson greeted us on three separate shelves like three chance encounters with a childhood friend.
My freshman year English teacher gave me my first copy of Idylls of the King. The Signet Classic, inscribed with an encouraging note on writing and scholarship from my teacher on the front cover, has followed me from apartment to apartment, from bedside table to the corner of my desk. Even now it sits on my coffee table, always within sight to encourage and inspire me as a writer and future educator; her words motivate me to put my pen to paper and remind me of the impact of a thoughtful note or a heartfelt mentorship.
So what, I thought, was Tennyson doing in so many places around my grandmother’s house? He wasn’t Elmer Kelton, Madeleine L’Engle, or one of my grandmother’s other favorites whose copies crowded her other shelves. Through the books, I fished for family stories from my grandmother in hopes that I learn about their owners.
At first glance, the smaller book appeared the more attractive of the two. With a blue-and-gold cover engraved with an intricate pattern of gilded vines and scales, the book introduced the reader to “Alfred, Lord Tennyson, POET LAUREATE” on the title page. Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. printed this copy in 1892, the year of Tennyson’s death; from this, my grandmother guessed it belonged to my father’s Grandpa Bull. Whoever purchased it must have fawned over its illustrated pages and delicately designed cover as much as I did, because the only mark that marred its pages was a dainty “Dolliver” written in pen above a street address. Despite its pristine appearance, I felt less connected to this book; the mystery of its ownership allured me, but the meager notes left me more drawn to its contents than the ambiguity of its origin.
The second book, a Standard English Classics copy from 1913, bore an unassuming green cover. In the introduction, the editor explained that the copy contained five selections of the National Conference on Uniform Entrance Requirements in English for the 1915 to 1919 exams: Tennyson’s typical poetry collection adapted into a digestible high school textbook. Though it contained the smallest amount of Tennyson’s own work — a sizeable portion of the text was analysis of Tennyson, his life, and the excerpts included within — I kept finding myself drawn to this copy. My grand-aunt’s cursive signature, “Ila Kenley,” marked the first page above an all-caps note of “BLANK VERSE” and a smaller addition of “iambic pentameter.”
Unlike the previous copy, a beautiful book preserved save for a location and a last name, Ila’s book contained a collection of notes and scribbles in both pen and pencil.
Though I never met her, we share a compulsion to note major events in the margins for later reference — many of her annotations noted the “Death Speech of Elaine” or thematic concepts of “Strength.” She underlined sections sparingly, so the few key lines she emphasized — platitudes like “The king who fights his people fights himself,” and “He makes no friend who never made a foe” — felt all the more poignant. Despite the cursory review of the text typical of a high school student preparing for an exam (the introduction lacked a single mark), Ila’s marginalia left me wondering about her attachment to the text. The Maid of Astolat’s death note was the only section where she had written the line numbers along the side. Had she written a report on this passage, or had she simply been called upon to read in class? The small sketches of personality in her stray pencil marks led me to ask my grandmother about Ila, from other books she had read to what their relationship had been like. These stories led to more, each anecdote branching through the family tree, bouncing from one sibling to another until they stretched back down into my grandmother’s own life.
As my grandmother and I looked through her bookshelves, we found story after story. Neither of us are the best at letting things go — I cling to my memories through writing stories, and she tucks items of any personal significance into cabinets, shelves, and boxes all around the ranch. I have my characters who enable and encourage over-analysis of my past, curating what-if’s into prose and poetry. My grandmother has her dyed Easter eggs from 1974, the ones painted by my father, aunt, and uncle that were “just too pretty to throw away.” Though we recognize that sorting all the things that clutter the shelves and rehoming them to people who will make the most of them is a necessity, we both struggle to say goodbye to the past. Separating the books into three piles — Keep, Donate, and Give to Friends — felt bittersweet for us both.
But going through the shelves and looking at the books together let us relive those memories and give them their space so we could translate them into family stories, set them in a donation pile, or both.
On finding a photo book of Mikhail Baryshnikov, my grandmother insisted we watch White Nights together. After finding a collection of Pushkin stories, I told my grandmother about the books and films of my Russian science fiction class. Book after book trailed us into stories about our family’s past, branching down into the present as we talked about my recent experiences at college and her trips to the ballet. At the end of our shelf spelunking, my grandmother set aside stacks of Nancy Drew books to the San Angelo literary council. She told me how those books had been her main companions in the summer polio epidemic of 1949, when many of her friends were paralyzed or equipped with iron lungs, her mother spent days anxiously shooing flies away from their home, and she lingered in her room with only the perceptive teen detective to keep her company. With the stories stowed away in our minds, it was easier to part with some of the books, even as we tucked others back into the shelves for later reminiscing. Despite my grandmother’s attachment to her books and my growing appreciation for the memories linked to each one, we both felt relieved when we looked at the donation and gifting stack — new homes for these books meant new connections across the pages, new ponderings about the origins of marginalia, and new discussions over books and bookshelves.
Though we looked through books upon books upon books over the break, my grandmother and I still have plenty of shelves and cabinets to explore in the coming months. As we walked downstairs after an evening of shelf-sifting, a name caught my eye on one untouched bookshelf — yet another copy of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Whatever drew our family to Tennyson’s poems and the other annotated books, whether for school assignments or personal penchants, my grandmother’s stories over those time-weathered spines bring more relatives into focus in my mind. Next time I see my grandmother, I hope to share more stories about the other Idylls and items that linger on the walls.
Photo by Radu Marcusu