Sunday, November 23, 2014

A box of books

I grew up in Massachusetts and attended elementary and junior high school in Billerica, Massachusetts. I was a member of a Boy Scout troop there sponsored by the local congregational church. The scouts' duties included doing community service projects for the sponsoring church.
Each year the church held a large fundraising auction of donated goods. One spring day I was among the Boy Scouts who were tasked to help at the auction. We were pretty much utilized for our mindless muscle power, picking up and moving things around.

Among the heavy items being auctioned were boxes of books, and many scouts tried to avoid them. But I didn't. You see, both my parents were foreign-born and not native English speakers. I was just at that age when the possibilities and vistas of literature were becoming apparent to me.

As I helped out with the other scouts I was fascinated by all the books in all the boxes that had been donated by people. I hefted a few of the boxes myself and held them aloft as the auctioneer sought bids. However, many of these boxes held used mass-market paperbacks, which weren't really in great demand.

After one or two boxes failed to even get a minimum bid, I was holding one aloft when the auctioneer again failed to get even a dollar. As he was about to give up, I said from behind my box "I'll give you a dollar."

He turned around, a bit surprised to see where the voice had come from, but said "Okay that's good!" And yes I offered up my dollar, and took the box of paperbacks home with me.

There were many books in that box that had obviously belonged to someone who studied literature. Even at that tender age I could tell they must've fulfilled some college syllabus. There were many Penguin Classics — titles such as Booth Tarkington's "Alice Adams" and "The Golovlyov Family" by Mikhail Saltykov Shchedrin.

There were a number of other mass-market paperbacks in there, but that particular box seemed to have predominance of those Penguin Classic editions. And those particular books had a name in them, which I still remember:  Nitsa Perkins.

I took the books with me, along with some others, when my family moved to Rockland, Massachusetts, in 1970. That's where I graduated from high school in 1975. I moved to New York City and attended Columbia University for a few years. I honestly don't recall how or when or where most of the books dissipated. Between moving and a divorce in the family and the selling of the house the other travails that assail us in everyday life, I lost track of them.

Now, sitting here in middle age in the 21st-century, in deepest darkest East Texas, I think I still have two of those books that have followed me all those years — "Hawaii" by James Michener and "Enjoy, Enjoy" by Harry Golden. I was rereading the latter book and I remembered the circumstances of its purchase, and remembered the name that had graced most of the books in the box that I bought for that buck.

I don't have any of those Penguin Classics anymore, but I remembered the name Nitsa Perkins.  I looked it up on the Internet and found an address. I wrote a letter, telling the story I just told you.

Thursday I got a call from Marshfield, Massachusetts, while I was work. It was Nitsa Perskins. She is alive and well. She said she got a kick out my letter, and confirmed she had lived in Billerica in 1969 and her family was a member of the First Congregational Church.

Like my family, her family have moved to south of Boston. She has lived in Marshfield for 38 years, raised four children, and was now a widow.

We had a pleasant chat, and I told her I would send her one of my books. She asked me if I would sign it.

Friday I dropped a copy of "The Clock Struck None" in the mail to her. In the letter I enclosed with the book, I said that if I am in Massachusetts next year for my 40th high school reunion, I will try to stop by. Marshfield is only 12 miles from Rockland.

It is amazing how the things we do can send out ripples through  time.


  1. What Bill said. That's a great story.

  2. Fantastic! I hope you will tell us of your visit with Nitsa Perkins some day.

  3. Makes you wonder what was in those other boxes...


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