My Grandmother and My Books
My Grandmother and My Books
by William Land
My grandmother, Mary Burns Land, introduced me to the love of reading at a young age.
My fondest childhood memories are of the times we spent together – we were very close. Nana was one of the earliest influences in my life. I remember how she loved me unconditionally. I was her first Land grandson and she made sure I knew I was special to her.
My greatest memories around visiting her and Poppa were the quiet times in their household. Nana introduced me at an early age to the world of books and reading and we had several book buying trips and lunch outings when I became a bit older. She always made sure that I had lots of books to read.
My grandmother was a very smart woman, although, as was typical of women from her generation, she was not educated. Nana had decided at a my young age that she would expose me to the world of books, and began a tradition during which she and I would go downtown during my visit to buy books and have lunch together.
During one such visit, she and I were looking through her photograph albums. I was thrilled by this activity because I liked seeing pictures of my father, his siblings, and other relatives who lived before my time. Also, I truly enjoyed her stories and remembrances. That day she told me why she introduced me to reading and owning books for pleasure. I recall Nana said that “you needed something to fill your time because you can’t run and play sports [due to disability] like the other boys [my brothers] so I always made sure you had a lot of books.”
I probably was about ten or eleven when the tradition first started that Nana would take me book shopping and for lunch downtown when I visited she and Poppa during my school breaks (usually three or four times a year). We would head downtown Sudbury, the community where she lived, by city bus. Nana would take me to the places that sold books (the bookstores and department stores). She would let me choose the books I wanted and usually told me the number that she would buy for me. I remember one of the earliest books she purchased for me became one of my favourite Nancy Drew books; The Clue in the Jewel Box; the 1943 original text with the updated 1962 cover art. I am very fond of both this story and painting.
This would take the better part of two or three hours depending upon the day and how we felt about walking. At some point, we would sit down for lunch at the Woolworth’s or Kresge’s lunch counter and then back for more book hunting, often returning to her home with one or two large shopping bags full of books.
Nana would personally inscribe many of the books she purchased for me. Sadly, I don’t have most of those books any longer because I read, re-read and shared them among my classmates so frequently that they became worn. When I decided to seriously collect the books, I wanted copies in “collectible condition” so I replaced the battered books with their new counterparts. When I wished I had kept the childhood treasures, I looked through my library and found some of the books Nana had inscribed for me. These treasured tomes hold a special place in my collection.
One such book is a Hardy Boys novel, The Hooded Hawk Mystery, ©1971, 1954. On the verso of the front endpaper, my grandmother wrote:
Your Grandparents 50th anniversary plus 2 weeks at camp and a day in Sudbury with Nana buying books. May you always be this happy Bill. With love always,
In another book, my grandparent inscribed:
“To a fine boy
With our Love
Nana & Poppa.”
That book is a Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Forgotten City, ©1975.
One Christmas (1975) I had received 23 new series books! What a tidy haul – the biggest one in my memory! Some of them came from my parents and grandparents for Christmas; others from Santa Claus, and the balance from a pre-Christmas book shopping trip.
Nana initiated a book buying trip a few days before Christmas because I happened to be in Sudbury with my parents. Soon after our arrival at her home, Nana announced that she and I would go shopping. My parents protested, but her children and in-laws rarely argued with my grandmother and won. She agreed to one concession: we would return within two hours. (An aside: This was one of the few times I saw that my father didn’t get his way when he issued a directive. Since it rarely happened, I enjoyed this, but wisely kept my glee to myself!)
Due to the time constraints, we didn’t have stop for lunch, but shopped quickly among the throng of holiday shoppers, returning with more bounty. Before leaving Sudbury, Nana told me they weren’t part of my Christmas present so I could read them right away. However, my mother felt differently and she kept them until Christmas morning. I knew that I couldn’t successfully argue with my mother on this issue without my grandmother to take my part. <smile>
As delighted as I was with all the new books, I was a bit disappointed that only one Nancy Drew book was among the presents; Nancy, being after all, my favourite series. However, I had to consider that I had a complete collection of the in-print titles with this new acquisition. Naturally, this revised text of Mystery of the Tolling Bell, ©1973, was the first book I started on Christmas morning.
The memory of this 1975 Christmastime shopping trip is strong; it was the last time we had such an outing. My beloved grandmother passed away on April 2, 1976; this date clearly stands out in my memory. Nana had had heart issues for many years. She passed away when I was sixteen and I was absolutely devastated for months afterwards.
I am so fortunate to have many loving and wonderful memories of Nana; most of them are not included in this post because they don’t involve books. My grandmother was a very strong influence in my life. She always told me that I could be anything I wanted to be and do anything that I wanted in life. I know she thought the sun rose and set on me, a comment that my mother and Aunt Polly both made to me in conversations over the years.
Nana was instrumental in fostering my love of Nancy Drew and other series books. When I was an adult, my aunt Phyllis (Polly) told me that “Mother always enjoyed your shopping trips.” When she became ill in later life and her memory was failing, she had told her daughter in a phone conversation that I was visiting that day. We had gone downtown and had lunch and I was in her guest room reading. Aunt Polly knew that wasn’t true because of a major snow storm that had shut down the city that day, but her mother had found comfort in his memory.
Another time, my mother protested that Nana was buying too many books and that I should be limited to one or two. Nana politely disagreed with Mom and told her “it was a grandmother’s prerogative to spoil her grandchildren.”
I once shared this story with Aunt Polly. Nana, too, shared book buying trips with Beth and Peggy, my older cousins, (Aunt Polly’s daughters). My aunt commented that what Nana had told my mother was nicer than she had told her.
“What did Nana say to you?” I inquired.
I was a bit surprised by this response: “Mother told me to shut up! I didn’t ask you to pay for them!” The answer is abrupt and rude, but I suspect there might have been more to the conversation than I was told. Knowing this aunt as well as I do, I feel she could have challenged her parent on the issue to the point of anger; in turn, my mother would not have objected very strongly with her mother-in-law.
One time, Nana and I returned from shopping and Auntie Barb and Uncle Don were visiting. As the adults conversed, I was eagerly rifling through my hoard of books. I overheard her say to Auntie Barb, “I love how his eyes sparkle when he looks through his books.”
During one trip Nana was selecting books for me. She stood before the shelves at Coles bookstore in downtown Sudbury, pulling a copy of each title from its place on the shelf. She asked me whether or not I had it.
Upon hearing “yes,” she would return it to the shelf. When I said “no,” she put it in a pile to purchase.
Observing the growing pile and, perhaps fearing my mother’a disapproval, I hesitated to answer at one point, saying instead, “Mom told us that you shouldn’t buy too many books for me.” My grandmother responded, much to my delight, that we didn’t have to listen to her.
During a 2001 visit at Aunt Cora’s home (another of Nana’s daughters) in London ON, she had talked about her family’s love for books and how much her mother enjoyed reading, encouraging her children to read. Aunt Cora said they didn’t have a lot of money, but books were often given as gifts. She then excused herself and returned a few minutes later with a few books from her girlhood. I can’t recall the exact number, now, or the titles except for a Penny Parker book by Mildred A. Wirt (the original ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew series). Aunt Cora told me that my father had given her this book one Christmas. She also told me that “Nana would have been so proud about what you have done with your book collection.”
In 2004, I moved to Sudbury to live. The downtown core has changed significantly (all the stores we were frequented are gone) since the days of the early to mid-1970s when Nana and I would go shopping, but I still see it more the way I remember it than the way it actually is.
I am grateful for the strong bond between a grandparent and grandchild; one I shared with my cherished grandmother, Mary Jane Burns Land (1911-1976). It is very rare that I don’t think of Nana when I pick up a book to read, any book, for she gave me the great gift: the love of books and reading.
Written: April 2014; January 2007
Revised: February 2015