I just finished reading the late Sue Grafton's final book, "Y is for Yesterday." I'd put off reading it. I've followed the Kinsey Millhone series for years and years, ever since I was fresh out of college and employed at B. Dalton Booksellers at a mall outside of Hartford and my boss introduced me to the series. I used to own them all, but over time I've downsized a lot of things, including books, for various reasons, and I don't think I have any of them any more except, now, this last book.
Sue Grafton died in 2017 as far too many people do – after battling cancer. I was…I don't know the word…it's not "crushed" or "devastated" – nothing so debilitating – but, well, really, really sad when I found out she'd died. Not so much because her famous alphabet series of mysteries was incomplete, but because her books were woven into my life, my relationship with my mother, my childhood, books, my grandfather…my history, I guess, and now that thread has been cut.
When I was a kid – I don't even remember how young – my mother gave me a used copy of the first Trixie Belden book. It was hardcover, with some illustrations, slightly faded pages, and a wonderfully musty old book smell. I was a reader. I was shy. I was – though I don't know if the word was tossed around back then – an introvert. And a tomboy. The book was a perfect gift. I remember looking at the illustrations and thinking that the person with the short, curly hair was a boy and the person with the shoulder-length bob and dress must be this girl, Trixie. But no, Trixie was the one with the short curly hair. She was imperfect. She had chores. She complained. She was like a normal person, compared to Nancy Drew. I couldn't relate at all to Nancy. For one thing, she was older, she had a rich father, and she could drive, and she had a boyfriend. Nothing there I could relate to. But Trixie – she wasn't as shy as I was, but she was only 13, so much closer in age, and like I said, she had chores to do, and she complained. In fact, that's how the book opens – something like this -
"Oh, Moms," Trixie wailed, "I'll just die if I don't have a horse!"
(I wanted a horse, too!)
And her mother says something like "You declared you'd suffer the same fate if we didn't buy you a bike three years ago, remember?"
They were outside, her mom was weeding the garden. Trixie "picked up a fat little worm, watched it wriggle around in the palm of her hand, then gently let it go" – or something like that. My mom had a garden. I wasn't afraid to pick up worms. Or toads. Or grasshoppers or crickets.
Trixie never gets a horse of her own (neither did I), but she gets a rich friend (the girl in the dress in the illustrations) who has horses, and they have adventures, and they don't age more than a year or so. And they solve mysteries.
I loved these books. I craved them. And my Mom did everything in her power to add to the collection. They weren't wildly popular, and they weren't always easy to find. I remember any time we went on any sort of vacation (which was rare), I would search the book stores for any missing copies in my collection. My mother hunted them down for Christmas and my birthday. I was horribly possessive of these treasures, to the point that I didn't want my sister to read them (not that she had any interest in them anyway) and when she made friends with a couple of girls in junior high who !!! also read Trixie Belden, I was thrown into a pathetic panic, afraid that because of them Mere would now want to read these incredible books and I would have to share them with her. I was Gollum, and the Trixie Belden mystery series was my Precious. I even hid the whole set up in the attic for a time.
I was awful.
Anyway, jumping ahead a whole bunch of years, during which time I like to think I matured and relaxed a bit but probably not, when I started reading Sue Grafton's books, I felt the same connection to the character of Kinsey Millhone. Not entirely – I was still shy, I didn't have the same history – but there were things I could relate to. She was happy when she could spend a whole weekend home, reading a book. She didn't wear makeup and she cut her own hair. I didn't like wearing makeup really, and never felt like I did it right, and while I didn't cut my own hair, I was at my best (I eventually discovered) when I just had it tied back in a pony tail. I admired her relatively simple life. I admired her independence. I just liked her. I liked to think that if she was real and we lived in the same neighborhood and somehow knew each other we could meet for coffee every once in a while, even though we tended to keep to ourselves most of the time.
My Mom read the books, too. I'd loan them to her, plus anything else I was reading. Working in a bookstore was wonderful – access to everything and an employee discount to aid in the addiction.
I got my reading gene from my mother, who got it from her father. I don't know where it came from before that. All three of us liked murder mysteries, and in addition to Trixie Belden and, yes, I read all the Nancy Drew stuff, too, I also read the Toff books by John Creasy, the Saint series by Leslie Charteris, and a bunch of Agatha Christie's books. These were while I was in junior high and high school. Around the time I was starting to read Sue Grafton, I also met Patricia Cornwell's books and those of Sara Paretsky. And, later, Faye Kellerman. And others. But those are the main ones.
I remember going to the library regularly as a kid, usually with my mom, but also on my own or with my best friend on our bikes in the summer. I read a lot. When I was in high school my mom and I would go so she could pick out books to bring for my grandfather, her father, to read, especially after his heart attack. He could do a whole lot at that point, but he could devour books. His short term memory had been affected, so reading the same books exact books every few weeks didn't matter. I think it was the familiar language, the familiar characters, the familiar (English) settings that probably made him feel comfortable.
I am like that too. Well, minus the heart attack and the advanced age. There is a comfort in reading a series and meeting up with familiar characters. They are a bit like old friends. Maybe that's what I found appealing. They gave me just enough of a (pretend) social life without my having to really interact with people too much. I was fine at work, but things like parties or any sort of get-together where you were just supposed to relax and talk were never relaxing for me. Still aren't, unless I'm mentally prepared before I go or it's with people I've known forever.
In more recent years I hadn't faithfully bought each new Kinsey Millhone mystery the day it came out like I'd done before. I think the addition of a husband and children slowed that down for me. I think I put away some of myself for a whole bunch of years and I've only recently started unpacking that part of me again. My kids are (gulp) both in high school (wait, what??) and they are doing their own things a lot and I have found myself with a bit more time on my hands and an odd feeling of not knowing what to do with myself or who I am or what I'm supposed to be.
The deaths of both my parents within the last five and a half years has also served to shake me up and wake me up. Trying to clean out their house was overwhelming, but interesting at times, as my sister and I dug through countless boxes of stuff from our childhood, our parents' childhoods, our lives as a family, just…everything. I don't think my mother ever wanted to part with anything. She was an only child and all her cousins and aunts and uncles were in England; maybe it was her way of having a bigger family. At times it felt like she would have preferred to live over there. Especially after her parents had both passed away. Hearing English accents was probably comforting in a way our American voices could never be, no matter what words we said.
At times over the years when I've been especially depressed I have given away my books. At first, just the books I truly didn't need or plan to ever read again, but then, eventually, the books I loved. Maybe it was an attempt to get rid of parts of me I didn't like, in an effort to like whatever was left. Maybe it was a way to fight the pain I already felt and couldn't pin down with a pain that was very real and very identifiable – getting rid of books – characters – friends – who were safe and comforting at times in my life. Maybe even they couldn't help me get away from the mean voices I'd allowed in my head, so why keep them around, collecting dust, pages fading, taking up space? My kids don't seem to have inherited the reading gene either. Maybe I didn't read to them enough. Maybe it was my fault somehow that they didn't enjoy – need – books the way I did. Maybe my attachment to all these books wasn't healthy, maybe that was part of my problem – preferring the worlds in books to the real world around me – so maybe I needed to get rid of these distractions so I could do a better job of being a person.
I don't know. But that's what I did. I got rid of books. If I think about it too much it hurts. But I understand, sort of, why I did it. And it's over and done. I could rebuild my library, which is appealing because it's so nice to have books…but then I think about the endlessness of cleaning out all the stuff in my parents' house…and I don't want to leave that sort of experience for my kids.
So I occasionally buy a book.
I know, I can also go to the library.
But you know what? I don't enjoy it like I used to. When I was growing up, I LOVED our library. It was old and mysterious and full of dark wood and musty book smells and it was quiet and a teeny bit scary for some reason. Like there could be ghostly characters that stepped out of the pages when no one was around and wandered from room to room, stretching their folded limbs and checking out the latest bestsellers.
That library has changed. It is bright and clean smelling and has lots of computers available. There is nothing dark or musty or cozy or scary about it at all. And the library closest to my house here is just the same. There are probably comfy chairs I could sink into for an hour or two with a book I might want to bring home for two weeks (if that) to finish if I like it…but the whole space is too bright. Too busy. Not enough dark wood. There is nothing intimate about the experience. I guess that's what I'm getting at. The lack of intimacy in these modern libraries. How can you develop a good relationship with a book with all these bright lights and people everywhere and desks and computers? There should be cozy corners and dark nooks, and at least a hint of a musty old book. Maybe Yankee candle could work on that….
I could probably explore that idea for many paragraphs but I have already been babbling on for a while now.
I finished Sue Grafton's final book, "Y is for Yesterday," a little while ago. I'm missing my Mom, and my grandfather, and Trixie Belden, and some part of myself that I'm still trying to get back, but I'm not even sure what part it is.
All I know is I have a strong urge to start reading "A is for Alibi" and go through the whole series once more, and pretend there will still, eventually, be a Z.