Of all the wonderful things to come home to after a long day in the city, a package from a stranger in the mailbox ranks way up there.
The padded manila envelope had a hand-drawn label with my name and town printed in blue marker above a large yellow sunflower. In my town of 49 (113 if you include the township) you don’t need a street address.
I recognized the name of the sender as a Facebook friend I’ve never met.
I don’t know if anyone ever outgrows the childish excitement of opening an unexpected gift, but I haven’t. Still wearing my heavy parka and stocking cap I rummaged in the kitchen junk drawer for a pair of scissors, then plopped down in front of the coffee table to slice through the clear packing tape.
I reached into the opening and pulled out a wonderfully worn, thick paperback book. Everything about it spoke to me: the scuffed cover with its faded illustration of a pioneer woman in a sea of prairie grass, the bent but intact spine and especially the author and title.
The sender had no way of knowing that Willa Cather is one of my favorite writers, or that “My Antonia,” considered by many her masterpiece, was one of her few books I had somehow missed reading.
I was seriously overheating before I took a break at around page 20 to remove my coat, pour myself a glass of wine and trowel some butter on a piece of bread and call it dinner so I could get back to the book. Three hours later, after midnight, I had barely touched the wine but was intoxicated by Cather’s descriptions of the Nebraska prairie.
“Some of the cottonwoods had already turned, and the yellow leaves and shining white bark made them look like the gold and silver trees in fairy tales.”
“…more than anything else, I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…”
I floated in Cather’s prose as if in a warm sea.
My default setting when it comes to book recommendations is to avoid taking or making them. Taste is so random and personal — I loved “Remains of the Day,” the book and the film, and loathed “The English Patient,” the book and the film. But I know people who loved or couldn’t abide them all.
But a book landing in the mailbox carries none of the implied imperatives of a loaned book pressed into your hands — namely that you have to read it, like it, and not lose it.
My book came with a handwritten note that read: “Here’s another book for your stack. Pass it on or recycle! I thought of the Flint Hills as I read it.”
Those three sentences explicitly remove the imperative to read the book and return it, and also give a clue about why the sender thought I might like it. It’s a charming formula and one I look forward to emulating with the box of books I recently culled from my stacks to take to a used-book seller.
If only one of the two dozen titles in my giveaway pile brings the recipient the joy “My Antonia” showered on me, it will be worth it.