Friday, February 28, 1997
Everyday lives stuck
between the pages

The Cincinnati Enquirer

They came tumbling out of books, then from a box on my desk.

Yellowing newspaper clippings. Stray postcards. Old, odd snapshots.

A sheet of Big Value trading stamps. Two elm leaves. A $25 check - never cashed - forgotten nine years ago in a birthday card.

Without warning, I come across a piece of paper that marks a place in the heart, as well as the book where it was found. It's an apology written with a boyish penmanship on Christmas Day, 1914. It's from William, ''your loving son,'' to his ''dear parents.''

The ladies of the Anderson Library Committee discovered these scraps of memories.

Jackie Weist, Carol Roberto, Patricia Charles and 14 other committee members found them sorting old books for a sale:

  • Photos from kids' birthdays. Christmas parties from the '50s. Weddings from the disco era.

  • Postcards from Mexico, New Orleans and an Easter card signed: ''Love and a kiss from Aunt Clara.''

  • Obituaries from 1917 of Dr. Charles Crank clipped to newspaper recipes for eggnog and mint juleps.

  • Two elm tree leaves. One 45/-/RPM single ''Chocolate Matzos,'' by the East Side Kids.

  • And, a petrified strip of bacon.

The committee members were leafing through used books in preparation for their annual used book sale. While checking the contents of 634 boxes of books, they found the lives of everyday people between the pages.

Running today through Sunday at Beechmont Mall, the book sale benefits the Anderson and Mount Washington branches of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County.

Since beginning in 1981, the sale has been an unqualified success. It has raised $284,699.22 to buy books and landscape both branches.

This year, the committee's book sorters collected enough of these make-do bookmarks to fill a box. They sent them to me to show off this slice of Cincinnati life. And, they had faint hopes of finding some of the owners.

''We've never found anything of great value,'' says Carol Roberto, who's sorted books for most of the sales' 16 years. ''No maps to hidden treasures. No stock certificates.''

No letter from Abe Lincoln. No rough draft of Hamlet.

Although, this year, they did find the manuscript of ''A Trick of Fate.'' That's a schoolgirl's short story - dated May 7, 1919 - by Martha Louise Kunkel. The ink is fading. But, you can still read the ''B+'' her English teacher wrote in red on the title page.

The committee's members try to find the owners of these keepsakes. Most go unclaimed. But, except for that piece of bacon, they're never thrown out. They're kept in a display case in the committee's workroom.

''We can't bear to part with them,'' says Patricia Charles, the committee's co-chair, who admits to stashing a valentine or two in her favorite books.

''We want to keep a little part of the people who liked these things so much they placed them in their books.

''They left them there for safekeeping, thinking they would get back to them. But time marches on. Something distracts them. And, they never do.''

Distant images

So, Jane Catherine Gaynor stares back at me with a summery smile from a rooftop photo taken Aug. 7, 1941.

The solemn memorial card of John D. McHargen, who died too young on Jan. 24, 1898, at the age of 16 years, eight months, rests incongruously in the library box next to a loopy-looking pair of 3-D glasses.

For his birthday in 1988, John D. Thompson's mom and dad sent him a $25 check. They put it in a Hallmark card: ''You turned out so very well, you sure made us look good!'' He made them wealthier, too. John tucked their card in a book and never cashed their check.

Two old-timers, with my grandparents' squat frames and fat German faces, stand next to a sturdy brick house. In this photo, marked ''June, 1940,'' they pose as stoically as the pair in Grant Wood's American Gothic.

One Alcoholics Anonymous card - never used - sits next to a party photo of 10 pie-eyed drinkers. They're gathered around a table sagging under the weight of glasses brimming with beer.

A set of baby pictures shows a man changing a diaper. The calendar on the wall reads: March 1950. Funny, I didn't know dads were so enlightened back then. But then that could be a staged shot. After all, the man's wearing a tie and undoing the diaper with arms outstretched like he's defusing a bomb.

Bacon bookmark

I can see sticking photos in a book. It keeps them flat and protects them from the light. But why make a bookmark out of a piece of bacon?

''The book was so interesting, the person reading it couldn't put it down. She had to take it into the kitchen with her while she cooked breakfast.''

So theorizes Jackie Weist, one of the committee's charter members.

''The toast started burning. She had to grab something in a hurry to mark her place. So, she picked up the only thing she had handy, a piece of bacon.''

The silliness of the bacon bookmark story counterbalances the weight of William's Christmas letter.

That, too, was found in a book.

But the letter was not instantly forgotten. Its corners are worn round. Some folds have been mended by three layers of tape.

Obviously, this letter has been opened and closed, read and re-read again and again in the 83 years since it was written.

William wrote to his parents and admitted ''during the past year, I have not been as good a boy as you would like me to be.'' He blames his failure on ''forgetfulness.''

He promises ''that in the coming year I will try to please you at all times.''

Did he keep his word?

Where was he writing from?

What did his parents think?

Did they love him?

More than likely, we'll never have those answers. But we do have a simple Christmas letter that keeps you wondering and making up happy endings.

This goes for William and everyone else who opened a book and marked their place with a piece of their life.

If you go

The Anderson Library Committee's used-book sale is today through Sunday at Beechmont Mall, 7500 Beechmont Ave. in Anderson Township. Proceeds benefit the Anderson and Mount Washington branch libraries. Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Think any of the odd bookmarks belong to you? Call 369-6960.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.