There’s nothing like a good flyleaf inscription. Salutations from an ancient friend inside the cover of a long-forgotten book are a rich thing. But time-travelers beware. You might just as easily find shouts from the grave or the embers of ill-fated romance. You might happen upon the sad story of a family’s loss of faith.
For twenty-seven years I’ve been in possession of the complete works of Shakespeare that my mother gave me in high school. It’s a monster—all thirty-seven plays, the sonnets, and a parcel of narrative poems, squeezed into 1,263 pages of light paper printed all the way to the margins.
The inscription, in my late mother’s hand, reads: “Dear Matt, May all the world always ‘be a stage’ for your hopes, dreams, and successes. Love, Mom & Dad. Christmas 1990.” The seventh anniversary of her death approaches. The sight of her script—so vivid, so full of breath—gets me every time.
This business of signing the inside covers of books is both charming and macabre. People die; books live forever. Scrawling on a flyleaf is a down payment on immortality. Think of me, it says. Memento mori.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were devout Catholics. Sadly, few of their descendants stayed connected to the Church. What went wrong? Was it Vatican II? Was it the rebel spirit of the 1960s? Did the secularity of everyday American life corrode the family’s ancestral faith?
Whatever’s to blame, I became one of the last Mass-going Catholics in the family. When my mother died in 2010, her sister—my godmother—gifted me a small library of religious books and a minor cache of artifacts that had survived the generations.
It’s a rich inheritance. Included is The Saint Joseph Children’s Missal: An Easy Way of PRAYING THE MASS for Boys and Girls, by Father H. Hoever, S.O.Cist. The tiny volume was once a gift between siblings. Immaculate penmanship commemorates a pregnant moment in the life of both Church and family: “Dear Barbara, Merry Christmas, Love Pat, 12/25/59.”
Some say the sixties didn’t start until Kennedy was assassinated, or until the Beatles landed at JFK. In reality, they started a week after my Aunt Pat gave my Aunt Barbara The Saint Joseph Children’s Missal. In some ways, it was all downhill from there.
Prayers and Instructions for Youthful Catholics was designed, no doubt, to be tucked into the pocket of a tidy Catholic school uniform. The inscription: “To dear little Breda in remembrance of her confirmation, May 9th, 1928, at St. Luke’s Church. Pray for me, Lovingly, Agnes.”
Breda and Agnes were my mother’s aunts—my grandmother’s sisters, dead these thirty years. I remember them only as spinsters sharing an apartment in Queens. They were once pious little girls.
Little Manual for Altar Boys was evidently a handbook for members of the Saint John Berchmans Altar-Boys Society. Its original owner—P. D. McLoughlin—signed the inside cover and marked up the handsome text of the Latin mass with cues, stage directions, and pronunciation marks. I have no idea who young P. D. is—or was. The signature is dated 1/15. That would be 1915.
I know some Catholics think the sixties and seventies were the beginning of a long-overdue relaxation of the strictures embodied by these preconciliar books I’ve inherited. They may be right. I can only judge the results. In an Irish Catholic family like mine, the number of Mass-goers is vanishingly small.
I love my family no less for their wandering. I pray, lovingly, that they’ll return someday. I wandered once, too. God has a way of reaching out and grabbing you. His handwriting is all over us.
Matthew Hennessey writes from Connecticut.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?