I am not writing this for pity or praise. I am writing this because the Harvard Classics were precious to me, filled with words and wisdom I’m still grateful for, then they were …lost.
Let me explain.
Many years ago, in northern Wisconsin on the Arrowhead of Lake Superior where I grew up, we were MILES from any library. We were not stranded by any means but our house was out in the country, outside the city limits of Superior. I’d need to walk two miles to get to the bus stop. I might ride the bus to visit a classmate, but not often. Mostly I’d ride my bike on Saturday to clean my grandma’s house. Rose lost her sight and needed a cornea transplant. (Sadly, the Mayo Clinic never called.) I’d clean for her and we’d talk all afternoon then I’d ride my bike home. That was pretty much a routine when I wasn’t in school Monday-Friday.
Maybe because of money, or because priority was attending Mass every weekend, I didn’t go to museums or the library on Saturday like many other kids. (We had very few class trips at my Catholic grade school.) At some point my adoptive mom Edie did belong to a book club and cookbooks, Kona Tiki and a few other hardcovers laid around, but they were not interesting to me, not at that age. My adoptive dad Sev read hunting and fishing magazines. Good Housekeeping and other ladies magazines arrived in the mailbox too. Mom had invested in a set of Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias that we’d need to do homework in the 60s and 70s. (Remember this was long before computers and yes, I did read books from the school library.)
Then something brand new came by mail: THE HARVARD CLASSICS, green hardcover volumes full of philosophy, history, big new words and utter brilliance! A world beyond Wisconsin in those 20 volumes changed my life.
I don’t know what Edie and Sev thought I’d make of my life but I was not expected to go to college. My parents didn’t have degrees so they didn’t offer to send me to college (obviously for lack of money). So like any stubborn person, I decided I would go anyway… Maybe I was expected to stay in Wisconsin, work a railroad job, marry and have kids. That was what many of my classmates did, and I’m not saying that’s bad, but that really wasn’t MY plan.
My adoptive mom came from a big family and my cousins in Illinois were city kids who had access to lots of amenities, like museums, libraries and all expected to go to college. When my cousin Bobby was in seminary to become a priest, he told mom about the Harvard Classics. And slowly but surely, the Harvard Classics arrived at our door, one by one. (I don’t know what those books cost her but it wasn’t cheap.)
I spent days reading these classics: probably the most notable and memorable to me was this volume: Plato, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (see photo). The world was much bigger than Wisconsin because of these philosophers, these authors… I knew I could not go to Harvard but I could read. I could expand my own mind on my own time.
Fast forward: I traveled to Wisconsin in 1996 because Edie had a short bout with breast cancer and it was resolved with a minor surgery. After a few days home, mom asked me if I’d live there again, in northern Wisconsin, since my divorce had happened in 1995. I was free to live anywhere. I hesitated because I was not sure this was a good choice for me career-wise, but I said, “Sure, Mom!” She was happy. She cried. I cried. This was not an easy decision to make after living in places like Seattle and Portland. They were bursting with museums, libraries, book talks and culture!
Trapped in Wisconsin blizzards, some lasting four days or longer, I started to read the Harvard Classics again. And slowly but surely, they worked their magic on me again and helped me see things in a new light. I looked for work as a writer-journalist and did find work as an editor pretty quickly. (There were very few jobs.) (I worked for a weekly first then a national Native newspaper, News From Indian Country.) By 1999 I moved to Connecticut for an editor job at the Pequot Times! (Mom pushed me to take it. I really didn’t want to leave her again.)
By 2006, it was very hard when I found out Edie was losing her memory. It could have been dementia or Alzheimers or Lyme Disease. Nothing was going to bring Mom back from that hellish descent. I spent as much time in Wisconsin as I could.
One trip home I could not find the Harvard Classics. They were not in the living room. They were gone. Someone had taken them. Mom couldn’t remember who. I asked her best friend and he had no idea. Mom refused to move out East to live with me, despite this condition getting worse. (Eventually she was moved to Oregon and lived out her final days there and died in 2011.)
Losing her is still hard, still hurts.
A few weeks ago, I found 20 volumes of Harvard Classics on EBay. I bid on the exact same green hardcovers, barely used. They are beautiful. They are here. They are HOME.
They are more than books to me. I’ll admit I hugged a few of them.
I have two young grand girls. I can’t wait to share the Harvard Classics with them.
(In case you hadn’t noticed I write once a week. I’m going to post early in the week because 🙂 this seems appropriate! And lots more interviews are ahead – so please follow by email…)
And if you have a chance, please visit THE MIX, a blog I co-edit with the brilliant Carol A. Hand on humanity’s mixed ancestry. We post on Wednesdays too! The essays are incredibly good. One thing I am sure of: we must use our voice and our stories to embrace our collective future as humanity… We are all related! We truly are.
If you want me to interview you, don’t be shy! Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org