When I opened the stiff green cover of the 1959 “Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening,” a note fell out. Faded blue cursive handwriting flowed across a small, unlined index card. It read:
“One planted roses in her yard
And tended them with gentleness
But never knew how many hearts
Never miss a local story.
Were lifted by that loveliness
(From The Bounty of His Good by R.H. Grenville)
That made me think of you, Bess.”
The note, I presume from the person who gave “Bess” the book as a gift, was just one of many clues nestled inside the half-century-old pages that provide a window into her life.
I think Bess’ last name was McClellan. The inside cover is signed in a different, less slanted handwriting, “Mrs. J.I. McClellan/Bazaar.”
In 1959, married women didn’t have first names, or any name, really — just the universal “Mrs.” in front of their husband’s birth name.
Bess was not an underliner: The book’s pages are immaculate, no soil smudges or orange pollen stains. So Bess was a read-first and then work type, apparently not given to reading from a propped open book while potting up tomatoes or arranging flowers.
But she was a clipper, expanding her gardening encyclopedia with informational pamphlets from seed companies and newspaper articles.
A column outlining a space-saving alternative to the conventional method of overwintering geraniums by hanging the whole plant upside down in a cool cellar is tucked inside the pages dealing with geraniums.
(If you’re interested, and I was, the column says you can cut geraniums down to about 6 inches of stem and leaves, shake the soil off the roots, roll the plants up in newspaper and store many of them in a cardboard box until late winter, then repot them indoors, where they will quickly regain their former size in a sunny window until after the last frost, when they can go back outdoors.)
Bess loved flowers. Lot of clippings are about how to propagate flowers and flowering shrubs. Country people are frugal and don’t tend to buy plants at nurseries if they can coax a new plant out of a cutting.
Bess grew food, too, apparently. Many clippings involve timing: when to cull out older strawberry plants to rejuvenate a bed, or how long to let pumpkins cure on the vine after they ripen.
I’ve built up a collection of these old gardening and cookbooks from auctions and family members. It’s not so much the printed information I’m after as the bonus material, the notes scribbled in the margins, the clippings and even letters concealed inside.
I love seeing frayed, faded scraps of paper used as bookmarks in recipe collections. Eagerly I flip the book open to that page. Sometimes a tiny check mark or heavy stains point me to which recipe on that page was the one the owner made again and again. Other times I have to guess: Was it the Ambrosia, the Spanish Cream or the Strawberry Souffle that won rave reviews?
When I find a book someone has personalized in this way, it’s like a landlocked version of finding a message in a bottle. These snippets of wisdom and observations are a glimpse into the very different daily lives of women two or three generations back.
One of my favorite notations is in a 1914 household encyclopedia. An unnamed young mother filled a blank page under the heading “Baby Notes.” It contained this jewel: “Don’t take advice from every old granny that calls. Study real motherhood and save the baby.”
I feel connected to these women I’ve never met. Recently I planted an heirloom rambling rose called “Seven Sisters,” and instead of placing it near my horse tank swimming pool where only I would be able to enjoy it, I planted it next to the fence along the road, thinking of Bess tending her roses with gentleness and never knowing how many hearts were lifted by their loveliness.