This weekend I was told that I could choose three books out of nine to keep for my own. My two sisters would share the other six books. The books were all written by my great grandfather who in his time was a well known and popular author but with the passing of the years his books are really only read by students studying the minor Victorian novelists. I looked at the books. At first glance it was not easy to choose. There were none of the better and more famous novels amongst the group and none appeared to be of any financial value. And then I saw a handwritten inscription in one of the books that was repeated in two others. It said, “To my beloved son, Dudley, from Mother 1909.” Those were the books I chose and my heart was deeply touched.
Dudley was the grandfather I never knew; the father my father barely remembered. In 1914 Dudley, aged 21, signed up for the army. He died shortly after the end of the war as a result of wounds and TB from being in the trenches. 1909 was the year his father, my great grandfather died. I imagined my great grandmother giving the books to Dudley in the year of his father’s death as a remembrance, a keepsake – something of his father.
Thinking about my initial disappointment about none of the books being of any real cultural or material value later, I realised that I am much more pleased with this sense of being in touch with my never seen ancestors; literally in touch as I can run my finger over the signature of my great grandmother. Just as recollection in prayer at the end of the day often makes us wake up to something lovely in our day which we had not seen at the time, so this meditating on what was of value in these books makes me realise how much more special they are to me because they are, in their way, about relationship, the fundamental reason for being alive.
I come from a family of writers. The new books will go on the shelf alongside books by my mother and her mother and my father and his grandfather. These people are part of me and I am part of them and their simply being makes them of eternal value to me.