I’m getting married this year, and last week I met two of my future in-laws, Great Aunt and Uncle Atwell. I was told that the Atwells are “true readers,” and, in a whisper as we walked to their front door, “wait until you see the house.” It took me some time to piece together the relationship between these two pieces of intelligence.
Once inside, it was the abundance of doilies and tablecloths that first leapt out. No surface escaped the crusade of cloth involving at least one, but more often two, lengths of fabric strategically draped to avoid showing even a hint of leg. These tables echoed Aunt Atwell herself, modest enough to wear a slip under the thick skirt that already reached mid-calf.
And then there were the daybeds. One went unmentioned as a pachyderm in a corner of the living room, the other awaited us on the sun porch, where we were led to eat our lunch. Neither was overburdened by pillows or other needless decoration, but instead, gave the idea of being open for business, their worn comforters disheveled.
At first, I thought that the Atwells might have reached the point in their lives where the stairs leading to the second floor had become a hazard, and so, they’d each taken a bed downstairs. But they seemed quite agile, and it was then that I began to understand what had been intimated in the whisper, “wait until you see the house.”
It’s this: The Atwells are not simply true readers, or even great readers; they are readers of the first order. Every surface, shelf, and cloistered table, was covered with books, every chair cozied up to a lamp, and this is where the daybeds come in, for, they were nothing less than fainting couches for the literary. The Atwells’ daybeds exist to catch a reader as she swoons, whatever room she’s in when she does it. While the tablecloths and Aunt Atwell’s slip speak to a Puritanical propriety, the daybeds tell another story, one about succumbing to the seduction of a quiet room and an open book at a moment’s notice.
Some folks are house-proud, but readers are book-proud, and Aunt and Uncle clearly glory in the reading time provided by their retirement. We talked of Uncle Atwell’s poetry, of all the writers he knows, and their books, and adventures, and while we did, Aunt Atwell kept getting up from the table of grape juice, port, cheese, and crackers she’d set out for us to go and retrieve copies of the books we were discussing. She’d bring them out, pass them around the porch as we talked, and by the time lunch ended, there were piles of books all around us, like partygoers who’d stayed too late and were left where they lay.
I may never have felt as right at home as I found myself at the Atwells.
My house is full of books too. I have books I got for a dime, ones I found on the street, that I’ve moved across the country — twice! — thereby increasing their value exponentially. Among them, a copy of the two-volume set of “The Glory and the Dream’’ my father insisted I read at 17 that I still have never cracked, “The Handmaid’s Tale’’ that my mother insisted I read at 11 that I’ve read too many times, and “The Light in the Attic’’ that my father gave me when I was 5, his inscription having increased in value exponentially as well, “May the light in your attic always burn brightly. Love, Pops.” These books are not mere belongings; they are not decoration. They are my friends. Like Aunt and Uncle Atwell do, I go to them for answers, for reminders, for company, for help, and like any good hostess, I introduce them to strangers at parties.
I hope to have many more lunches with the Atwells and to find myself, at retirement age, like Aunt Atwell does, unable to sit for long at parties because there are books to be taken down, caressed, and shared with my guests, to find stacks of books littering the floor at party’s end, amid the wine glasses and, perhaps, the occasional youngster too worn out by all this talk of words, waiting to be tucked in to the nearest daybed.