Two weeks ago I got a call from my Aunt Ada to come help her. “I knew this day would come,” she says. “I’ve run out of room on my bookshelves. Also, if you’re coming over anyway, bring me a Swiss chocolate bar.”
I go to visit Aunt Ada in the apartment that she’s lived in for most of her adult life. Although roomy by most standards, at this point it has become crowded with the accumulation of objects from her 80-year-old life. The living room is packed with elegant furniture that most people would consider to be antique, but that Ada probably bought new. Her walls are covered with art that is still called modern in artistic circles, but is predominantly older than she is. However, the most prominent features in the room are the floor to ceiling bookshelves that line one wall, filled to the brim with hardcover editions. When I sit down, I see the latest arrival to her book collection on her coffee table, still in its shipping box. Aunt Ada has been a member of the Book of the Month Club for over 60 years.
“Aunt Ada, are you still reading one of these books every month?” I ask.
“I’ll admit I’m getting a little behind. This is the one I’m on right now.” She shows me a copy of While I Was Gone, published in 1999. “I’ve been kind of busy lately organizing a bridge tournament.”
“Aunt Ada, if you don’t have time to read these books anymore, why don’t you cancel your membership?”
“That’s impossible,” she says, “I’m signed up for life.”
“What do you mean? Nobody is signed up for life. You probably only had to buy the first 12 books, and then you could have left the club anytime you wanted.”
Ada gives me a dirty look. “The problem with you young people is you don’t take your commitments seriously. That’s why there are so many divorces and loan defaults and animal shelters full of abandoned pets.” It should be noted that Ada has two fat, barely breathing cats, that she adopted when they were kittens, sitting on the couch next to her. “Anyway, I have a complete set of Book of the Month starred selections since 1955. That’ll be valuable someday.”
I suspect that Ada is really not as loyal to Book of the Month Club as she claims, but rather that she just can’t figure out how to cancel her membership. It is very difficult for her to cancel or change anything in her life. I used to make fun of the fact that she still has a black rotary dial phone, which she rents from the phone company for $9.66 a month. But her phone continues to work perfectly, while mine seems to break or get lost or go haywire and needs to be replaced every few months. She makes meatloaf every Sunday and goes to the beauty parlor every Friday. And each of her nieces and nephews receives a birthday card every year stuffed with a crisp new five-dollar bill. Aunt Ada likes her routines.
“What do you think I should do?” she asks.
Although I know that she won’t listen to any advice I give her, I try my best. “You could buy another shelf,” I suggest.
“The company that made these shelves went out of business 30 years ago. And anyway, where would I put it?”
“You could sell your piano.”
Ada looks thunderstruck. “Your mother gave me that.”
“She tried to give it away to the school, but you wouldn’t let her. You don’t even play the piano.”
“I’m not too old to learn, you know. Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was 78 and she became a famous artist!”
“Grandma Moses never tried playing that piano,” I say. “It hasn’t been tuned for fifteen years.”
She gives me another exasperated look. “You’re really not helping,” she says. “I think maybe it’s time for you to leave.”
This week I get a package in the mail, with a crossed out return label from the Book of the Month Club. When I open it, I see that Aunt Ada has sent me the first book she ever got from the club, Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk. I am reminded of the fact that Ada’s mother lived to be even older than Grandma Moses (103), and Ada, who does Tai Chi before taking a three-mile walk around her neighborhood every morning, seems to have inherited her mom’s genes. I expect I’ll be receiving a new old book every month for quite some time.