I’ve been doing some research up at the university library lately, in the special collections section. One of the early settlers of my town was a woman named Minnie Frances Hayden Howard. She was a doctor, graduating from medical school in 1899, and shortly afterward moved to Pocatello with her husband and young family. After a long and busy life, Minnie was asked many times by family and friends to write her memoirs, so in her 85th year, she took out a spiral bound notebook and began to write. That notebook was part of the large donation of papers and correspondence her son gave to the Idaho State University library after her death. When I found that memoir, it felt to me that I had found the Small Plates themselves! The notebook was full of anecdotes, interesting memories, reflections on life, and musings about the past, as well as the loose chronological history of Minnie’s experiences. I read so much and learned so many things about this woman, that she feels like a friend or close acquaintance. I’m continuing to learn from someone who has been dead for almost 50 years.
One of the ideas Minnie shared was this simple but thought-provoking phrase: “People tend to live by the sentiments of the songs they sing.” Minnie wrote about how her mother didn’t enjoy the young teenagers bringing home the songs of the day and pounding them out on the melodeon. Songs like “You’ll Miss Lots of Fun When You’re Married” by John Philip Sousa & Edward M. Taber, or “After the Ball” by Charles K. Harris were not allowed to be sung in that strict, though loving, household. Now there may be nothing wrong with those songs, but Minnie’s mother didn’t want her young single adults to fall into the thought patterns of such songs that poked gentle fun at marriage or encouraged maudlin regret.
Maybe Minnie’s mother has a point. But I’ve always been more interested in reading and books than in popular music, so as I’ve been sitting and pondering lately, I’ve been wondering if we also tend to live by the overall themes of the books we read. I think yes, we do.
It is terribly hard for me to settle on one single book as my all-time favorite. But I suppose if I were pushed to make a decision, I would ultimately choose To Kill a Mockingbird. (That’s not to say it would be the first book I’d choose to be stranded with on a desert island. That honor would go to the as-yet-unpublished Encyclopedia Galactica. But that’s another blog topic in itself.)
When I recall To Kill a Mockingbird and its themes that I have consciously or unconsciously lived by as a result of making that book part of myself, I think certainly of the message to reject racism and hold fast to justice. But I think also of other, subtler themes.
For example, I have four teenaged sons (one of them is an exchange student from Poland). Our life is very full and sometimes complicated and hectic. I remember how, in my own teen years, I slowly asserted my independence and began to make my own choices and decisions about life. I know I slowly withdrew from my parents, though still keeping good relations with them, and spent more and more time with my friends. Now my own children are doing this. I have learned that instead of trying in vain to hang on to my elusive sons for a little longer, risking disgruntlement and rebellion, I try to use Atticus’s style of parenting. Scout said he treated her and Jem with “courteous detachment.” So instead of getting all worked up about a child declining to share all the details of a date with me, or another son who refuses to give me a play-by-play of his debate tournament, I remember Atticus’s courtesy and his gentle awareness of the individuality of his children, and I try to do likewise.
I think also of the way people in the Maycomb community helped each other and I hope I’ve internalized the model Harper Lee describes of an ideal neighborhood where people work together in friendship to help one another. Through hardships like fire and addiction, and smaller things like gardening and recognizing a stray dog, the people of this fictionalized neighborhood helped each other. Because of Stephanie Crawford’s influence, for example, I have tried to be kind to the children of my own neighborhood. So I think the themes of community and public feeling have rubbed off on me.
Then there’s Boo Radley. I think a simple way to sum up how his perspective affects me is that one never knows the influence one person has on another. A kind word might be the very thing someone needs to keep going. Scout and Jem had no idea how much they meant to Boo, and often we don’t know how much we mean to other people. But maybe that isn’t the important thing. Maybe it is more important that we tell the people around us how much they mean to us, and if the feelings are reciprocated, great. If not, at least we’ve shared our own feelings of gratitude and appreciation.
I could go on and on, tracing my actions directly to portrayals of similar actions in some of my favorite books (unfortunately not all of them positive). Books and ideas are powerful, and music is also powerful. Sometimes I’ve been a bit shy about reading or thinking or listening to some examples of these things because I know their influence can be great. For example, I haven’t been brave enough to read much Stephen King, and I don’t have the desire to listen to certain types of music. Maybe this wariness comes in part from recognizing the truth of what Minnie Howard’s mother taught. We really do tend to live by the sentiments of the music we listen to and the books we read.
So I think I need to carry this awareness one step farther now. Because I acknowledge the influence books and music have on me, I will, still with courteous detachment, suggest to my children and community members, books whose themes can motivate readers toward good things. I will also listen when my children and others share their thoughts and experiences with me, because it’s hard to know how much such a listening ear can mean to someone else. Listening is, in itself, a way to show gratitude and appreciation, and this helps to reinforce the sentiments by which I choose to read about and live by.