Karin Fuller: Finding meaning in the margins

March 3, 2019

My grandfather liked to write in the margins of books. Sometimes he’d simply make note of the date and where he was as he read; other times, his opinion of what he was reading. He’d highlight and underline and editorialize in such a colorful way it later became difficult, for those who loved him, to toss even his junk mail.

No printed material was sacred, except for the Bible. Even the Yellow Pages were annotated. Beside “Zabertakis” he’d written “Nice lady. Big dog. Bites.” Below Joe Mifflin, “Shyster.” Underlined several times.

His daughter — my mother — followed a similar bend, but she gave it a spin of her own. Her notes were also in margins, but more often on the backs of envelopes, on scraps of paper, Post-its.

When I was cleaning off her kitchen counter, I found several articles she’d torn out and saved in a folder for me to read. Written on the front of the folder was: “Articles for Karin to probably not ever read.”

For what it’s worth, I read every one.

There were dozens of lists. Questions for doctors. Things to get from the store. Gift ideas for family members. My favorite was a list of possible gifts for my dad.

“Hard hat. Bandages. Painkillers. X-ray machine. Do-at-home stitches kit.”

My clumsiness is apparently an inherited trait.

You can tell a lot about a person by their notes. Mom’s said things like, “Attitude impacts your immune system. Laugh a lot!” and “The ones you love are closer than you think.”

And, on a sealed Styrofoam cup, “Dehydrated mice. Just add water.”

From the sound the cup made when I shook it, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t kidding. I didn’t look.

Like my ancestors, I too write in books, noting sections that seem particularly well-written; highlighting places where the author makes me like a character or where they reveal vital information in such a casual way it’s hardly noticed. Writerly things. But far removed from my mom and PapPap. Or so I believed.

Then came the day Don called out to me from across the house, “Do you have a blank notebook I can use?”

My daughter laughed.

“Be careful,” she cautioned. “Mom’s notebooks are never empty. Somewhere in the middle you’ll hit on something totally random and weird.”

“Those are story ideas,” I called out.

“They’re disturbing,” said Celeste.

Since I was seated at my desk as these comments were spoken, I pulled open the drawer where I keep dozens of notebooks and flipped one open. The first several pages were misleadingly blank, which might lead a notebook borrower to believe the whole book to be blank. But about 10 pages in, in a scraggly hand that suggested I’d written the notes in the middle of the night, was this:

“The first half-dozen chest hairs sprouted during the night of my 11th birthday. This would not have been a bad thing if I was a boy. I am not. Right about the age I was legally able to drive, I began experiencing lower back pain. I went to a chiropractor, who x-rayed my spine.

’“I’m not sure how to explain this,” he said, “But you appear to be growing a tail.”

“As his words settled into my ears (which were neither growing nor pointy), I experienced three consecutive thoughts: 1. This is getting interesting; 2. The agency said they wanted ‘exotic,’ and; 3. ‘Can my pageant gown be altered to accommodate a tail?’”

I began to think Celeste’s assessment was right. It was random. Disturbing.

As I continued to flip through the notebooks, I found most notations seemed to have column potential. One was about the rationale of two college-age girls in a department store dressing room. Another customer chastised them for leaving the clothes they’d tried on strewn all over the floor.

“We’re helping someone have a job,” one said. “They have to employ people because of customers like us. We’re good for the economy.”

A few pages beyond that, I’d written, “The ghosts I allowed into my life at 18 haunt me still.”

And, “Delete. Delete. Delete. Today’s equivalent of slamming down a phone.”

The last in the book, in that same scribbly, sleep-addled hand, said, “Some cats come from different worlds. Ours came from Planet A-hole.”

I slid the books back into the drawer and smiled. There might be little wealth to pass down to my heirs, but at least they should be entertained.

Karin Fuller can be reached via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.