My grandmother grew up on a cotton farm in Greer County, Oklahoma. Her father was the first to use irrigation in the county. She was the middle child of three. She attended the University of Oklahoma in Norman where she studied literature and met my grandfather. She worked as a secretary for many years before becoming a home maker.
Though my grandmother appeared to live a life typical of her time, she carried progressive ideals that have transferred down through three generations. My grandmother believed in being educated and in being well read, despite being a woman born in 1925. (She was also an advocate of bilingualism and wanted her children to learn French. Though her children never secured this chance, my sister and I did because of the importance she placed on being bilingual.) These ideas are immortalized in an old book of hers that rests stiffly on a stack of much newer titles in a small wooden cabinet.
The book is sheathed inside a decaying gray dust jacket, taped at various points in its life. The front and back cover of the book are dingy, but intact, with only some fraying at the corners. It’s obvious she read the entire volume, as she left notes throughout in an extinct antique cursive. The publisher is The Peter Pauper Press, the city of publication is Mount Vernon. There is no date accept for a handwritten note on the flyleaf of the book that reads Wanda Sue Smith Feb 46. (What a name, right?!)
A quick look at the publisher’s website revealed that, in 1928 at the age of 22, Peter Beilenson began the printing company in his father’s garage. According to Beilenson’s son, the printer produced books “that even a pauper could afford,” despite being very finely crafted, displaying the work of many “acclaimed artists,” and being printed on hand-made paper (Quote source here). In fact, the last page of my grandmother’s book claims that the text is printed on “specially-made Peter Pauper Press Paper.” This “discount edition” seems to resonate with my grandmother’s modest rural upbringing and lofty literary ambitions. In 1935, the Peter Pauper Press was moved to Mount Vernon. Between this time and 1946, my grandmother’s volume of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was born. (All information about the publisher can be found here.)
In 1972 my grandmother died of lung cancer (scarcely 26 years after her first read of Shakespeare’s Sonnets). She had been a smoker all her life. She left behind her three children, one of which was my mother (only 17 at the time). Her book of Sonnets connects her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to a deeply private inner life, one that kept the gravity of her illness a secret until the very end. It is a treasured family relic, that I am honored to inherit.