I once left my paycheck in a library book. The next borrower at my local library was kind enough to return it to the circulation desk. Because I have the habit of marking my place with whatever scrap of paper is at hand, I'm constantly searching piles of books for missing bills, coupons, or unanswered letters.
The corollary, of course, is finding books bristling with markers of forgotten purposes. My poetry books are full of these. I can never recall why this sonnet or that villanelle, the subject of love or roses or sleep, mattered at the moment I marked it with a postcard or an envelope.
Notes and lists stuck in cookbooks, however, are a different story – they retain their context.
In the bread section of my copy of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," a list written on an old envelope from the Vermont National Bank is headed "Pampers." My daughter has children of her own now. But when she was a baby and we lived in Vermont, I made all my own bread. It was what everyone did. We made our own baby food and yogurt, too, grew bean sprouts, and drank goat's milk. I agonized over those Pampers headed for the landfill, but I had no washing machine and the diaper service simply refused to come down our dirt road.
Several pages farther on, at a recipe for panettone, the landscape changes. We have moved to Massachusetts, and I made panettone for Christmas bake sales at my daughter's school. Tied with a piece of blue yarn is a recipe for cranberry orange relish, eccentrically spelled but carefully written, in her grade-school hand, with her name printed at the bottom.
Another shopping list on a small square of paper in my "party" cookbook calls for stew beef, tomatoes, eggs, three cups of whipping cream, brown sugar, and soft drinks. Clearly, I am giving a dinner party featuring "beef something and crème brûlée."
I remember those preparations. Running to the supermarket with the list that always managed to omit one ingredient, necessitating another last-minute trip. Picking flowers at the flower farm, choosing candles, setting the table, laying the fire in winter or opening the long veranda windows in summer – the utter exhaustion relieved by the appearance of the first guest. Other similar lists include "tidy bedroom," "put stuff away." Stuff – the endless lopsided piles of books and papers that accompany teaching.
In the cookies section, most of the lists are on the back of large rectangles of blue or white paper – permission slips. That was my job, or part of it. I taught English at a New England boarding school, but I was also a house parent.
I look at those slips now: The white ones were for weekend day permissions to go into Cambridge or Boston, the blue ones for overnights with friends or family all over New England and beyond. Some names I remember; some I don't. But I checked those permissions, called the requisite parents in New York or Boston or Los Angeles, and I signed them during those years when I lived in a Greek Revival house full of teenagers arguing in the common room, hanging over the banisters, bleaching their hair with Clorox or dying it matte black.
And once again it is Sunday afternoon a world ago. I am on duty in the house. I've made the good sugar cookies and tea. There's a fire in my beautiful black marble fireplace. The students wander in as the afternoon progresses, tossing hair, complaining about papers due, parents, boys. Much of the time, they could, like generations of their kind, be exhausting and infuriating. But now, when I think of them, I see them perched on the edge of the sofa, on the edge of the future, in that warm fire-lit glow of an eternal teatime.
I never throw those bits of paper out. I tuck them back in, forgotten till the next time I make bread or crème brûlée or sugar cookies, just as I leave the markers in the poetry books. The poem that mattered once might matter again.