“The best airport is probably Portland–Wait, Phoebe, careful!”
I am on the phone as Phoebe picks her way towards me through crags and buttes of novels stacked on the floor. She climbs up on to my chair, and sits behind me on another literary pile.
Ten months ago, the movers shoved all our accumulated volumes indifferently on to shelves throughout the house. An hour ago, I conceived a fierce Howard-Dean-like desire to organize them by storm.
“First the nonfiction books are all going upstairs!” I yelled cheerfully, rolling up my sleeves. “And the fiction is going downstairs! Children’s books can go to children’s rooms!” I roared, warming to my theme, “And we’re going to take back this house from the forces of disarray! Yeeaaarrrgh!”
Upstairs, the children chattered pleasantly, and I could feel my poll numbers slipping. What do they care for alphabetized biographies, let alone hauling piles of dusty books up and down the stairs? They’re in Puzzle Land, once our sitting room, where they have laid out little stations at which each child can assemble its own age-appropriate puzzle of Ireland, fire engine, medieval jousting, or dinosaur panorama. I picture them like polite Iowans, wiping off my spittle and then turning placidly back to their cribbage.
“–Mummy?” Phoebe inquires behind me.
“Just a minute, darling–Go on,” I say to my English sister-in-law, who is planning an Anglo-Canadian raid this summer on coastal Maine, where I grew up and where our family has for the last two years rented a tiny cottage.
Phoebe taps on my head.
“Sweetie, I’m on the phone. See? I show her the handset and return my attention to London.
The raiding party is composed of my sister-in-law, her husband, their four children, our mutual sister-in-law and her two children, our mutual mother-in-law and her husband, and, with any luck, our mother-in-law’s Virginia-based stepsister and her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. Add to these my Maine-based mother, father, and stepmother, and their, (the father-and-stepmother’s) young son and daughter (my half-siblings), put our own family in a cottage nearby, where we will be, and what you have is a gathering of noisy good fun and potentially fatal toxicity.
Phoebe is saying something urgently: “–And go!”
Partly absorbed in the long-distance family logistics, partly aware of Phoebe trying to communicate, I am also thinking of the small weather-beaten, leather-bound copy of Rabelais that 15 minutes ago I actually threw out. No spine, terribly fragile, who’s ever going to know what it is when they see it on a shelf, let alone read it? Still, throwing away a book. I think of Fahrenheit 451. I think of Mussolini. With a sick feeling, I retrieve the book with its falling-off front cover and discover that it belonged to my husband’s grandfather, a swashbuckling Englishman who flew in the first-ever squadron of the RAF, ran off with a mistress, and died on the Italian Riviera.
“–Mummy!” Phoebe says desperately.
“Much better than having everyone stay in the same place,” agrees my sister-in-law.
I gaze at the heaps of books on the floor. What a mess. I roll my sleeves down absent-mindedly. After an hour of hither-and-yon, the room looks like India after Partition. Abandoned nonfiction books huddle worriedly on shelves that used to be full of their own kind, but which are now packed with pushy newcomer novels. Poetry collections and yellowed lit-crit paperbacks sit in small stacks, some here, some there, because I still don’t know where they can be allowed to settle. Meanwhile, the dust is unbelievable, like wind whistling through an ashtray.
“Just a minute,” I say, then: “Oh heavens, the Proust!”
A tinny trans-Atlantic laugh comes down the telephone line.
“Sarah, I’ll have to call you back, Phoebe’s just–”
“Ok, bye. No, no, Phoebs, don’t worry–”
I rush upstairs for paper towels. Tonight I will be able to figure this episode in my bedtime catalogue of maternal failings. For it is one of the beautiful things about being a mother: No matter how puny the domestic disaster, how vicious the childish character flaw, or how damp the six-volume hardback set of In Search of Lost Time, you are to blame.