Old schoolbooks bring long-gone owners to mind

October 18, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

I've been sorting through and rearranging some of my oldest books, a fall housecleaning chore that can chew up a morning if you open their spines and leaf through their pages. I did. There went the day.

These books are from a category I preserve. Some are my own schoolbooks, others belonged to family members I often recall.

The book that caught me off guard was the well-worn geometry text my grandmother, Lily Stewart, inscribed with her signature. It must have been handed down to her younger sister, my godmother, Marie, who also signed the book.

The thought of these two sisters tangling with Pythagoras brought a smile to my face. Lily did not like school and got her father to allow her to leave Eastern High School before receiving her diploma. This was not well received by her four other sisters, Helen, Ruth, Cora and Marie, who were all proud Eastern graduates and faithful alumnae.

When I speak of Eastern, this was old, old Eastern, on Aisquith Street, where coincidentally, Lily and her sisters lived as well. (Lily even wrote "511 Aisquith Street" below her name.) I noticed that Lily's handwriting in the 1890s was quite accomplished and beautiful. As I knew it, in the 1950s, it was not as graceful. But it possessed character. I think of her handwritten recipe for Christmas cookies my brother Eddie has framed in his kitchen. It is a wonderful document.

On the same shelf happened to be one of the few books I've saved from my own school days. This was a slender 1950s paperbound publication called "Recorder," a handwriting manual produced by the Zaner-Bloser educational publishing firm. I worked diligently at attaining decent handwriting. This little book was a help.

The next one I grabbed was similarly inscribed by my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, who possessed the finest, most lyrical handwriting in the house. Pop Monaghan was a handwriting fanatic. He used only fountain pens he purchased from a custom pen maker named Jenkins on Saratoga Street. These writing instruments, as complicated as an engineer's slide rule, produced the heavy flow of ink he preferred.

His book was an engineering text he associated with his student days at University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. There was nothing unusual about this tome, except for the obituary he'd pasted inside the cover. Years later, when his teacher, E.J. Maurus, had died, Pop saw a news item in The Sun, cut it out and glued it in the book that reminded him of that classroom experience. Pop never forgot his time in South Bend. Obviously, this book and the teacher cast a long shadow.

I had saved a Greek text from my father's days at Loyola and placed it alongside another book presented to me by another one-time Greek scholar, my mother's friend, Bertha Hollander, who had used it at Bryn Mawr. I had my troubles with classical Greek. I can well recall Bertha's concern and generosity. She dipped into her own supply of carefully preserved schoolbooks and inscribed this volume to me, one she thought might help me.

Did the gift help? It didn't hurt. And that book, with her signature, will never leave my library.

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