Now and again, a friend or a reader or a colleague will say to me, “Mary, you really ought to write a book.”
I always laugh or shrug or shake my head. “I don’t have a book in me,” I say. “I write columns. That’s all my attention span can bear.”
But a book, of course, is the default daydream of every writer – even if she’s not actually planning on ever writing one. Even if she knows she’s really not up to the task.
For my 40th birthday last month, my family presented me with my book. A collection of every column I’ve written since my days as a 24-year-old newspaper reporter in North Georgia back in 1997. A complete record of my ruminations for the last 15 years, printed and bound and beautiful.
I don’t mind telling you, I wept like an overtired 3-year-old when I realized what they had done. Actually, it kind of scared my kids.
“Mom,” asked my vaguely alarmed 11-year-old, “don’t you like your book?”
What takes me so completely apart about this gift is not even the gift itself. It’s the work and time and thought that went into it.
My husband had to dig around in the attic and in cluttered cabinets to find those columns I wrote back in 1997. He had to type them into the computer -- and he doesn’t type. (Though he eventually enlisted the help of people who do.)
He had to click all around my desktop and find my files from the last decade, and then he had to write to the executive editor of this newspaper and ask for permission to reprint the columns. He even got in touch with the editor of the Life section – a friend and mentor throughout my career -- and asked him to contribute the book’s poetic foreword.
My husband spent months and months on this gift, starting work over the summer, eventually getting my mother and my friends to lend a hand when he got out of his depth in the editing and design stages.
Once I stopped crying enough to ask them how in world they’d pulled this off, my husband and my mother launched into a bantering description of the starts and stops and frustrations of getting it all together and finished in time.
“All of this was going on, and I had no idea,” I marveled, as they breathlessly described one miserable moment when they’d finalized the thing only to have it lose its formatting during a transfer from one computer to another.
In the 16 years we’ve been together, I’ve only talked with my husband about writing a book in that just-kidding way reserved for over-the-top goals I have no real intention of hitting. And I have never even jokingly suggested that I might aspire to collecting my columns into a book.
But he knew how much it would mean to me. He knew because he watches me and he listens to me and he has made a point of knowing my heart like no one else.
And even when I’m driving him very nearly insane -- when it’s all he can do to keep up with my moods and my mumbling and my mental walkabouts (I’m a real piece of work, y’all) -- he wants so much for me to be happy. He would do anything to see it.
As utterly wonderful as my book is, that’s the real gift.