A Little Book, A Lot Of Memories

Lowell L. Getz

Sitting all alone on my lower office shelf is a small, 4 by 6 inch, white book, its binding frayed, its back broken, the smudged covers held in place with mending tape. The title, "Reptiles and Amphibians, A Guide To Familiar American Species." The contents are not sophisticated. It is a very elementary, children's picture guide to a few of the common reptiles and amphibians of North America.

Reptiles and Amphibians, A guide to Familiar American Species. Cover and title page.

The Little Book (left). Title page of the Little Book, with Mary Ruth's inscription (right).

The author, Dr. Hobart M. Smith, was the professor of my Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy course at the University of Illinois the fall semester of 1950. That was my first advanced zoology course, the beginning of a life-long academic career in biology and a continued friendship with professor Smith.

The diminutive dimensions of this little book belie the multitude of memories it holds for me. The book was a present from my wife, Mary Ruth, on our first Christmas together, less than six months into our marriage. Inscribed in her always recognizable flowing handwriting at the top of the title page is "To Willie from Dosie", our names for each other. Those previous six months had seen climactic changes in our lives — the beginning of a life together (57 years and counting); relocating from our home in rural central Illinois to a congested New England mill town (Fitchburg, Massachusetts); and an initiation into the regimentation of Army life. These changes, coming all at once into our lives, indelibly ingrained that first Christmas, and the events of the season, into our minds. The sensations, the sights, the feelings have never left us.

Mary Ruth, taken at Christmas time, 1953.

Mary Ruth, taken at Christmas time, 1953.

There was little money for presents that first Christmas. A Second Lieutenant's pay did not go far and we were saving for graduate school when the army obligation was fulfilled. I do not remember what I bought Mary Ruth that year, but I have never forgotten, and treasure more than any other present I have ever received, the gift she gave me — the little Guide Book on reptiles and amphibians. It did not matter that I already had advanced major works identifying all the species of reptiles and amphibians of North America. It did not matter that later on in graduate school I took advanced courses in reptiles and amphibians and acquired even more reference books. Nor, did it matter that small mammals became my primary research interest. The small Guide Book to reptiles and amphibians, the first Christmas present from Mary Ruth, always there amongst the major tomes, was my prized possession.

Our first apartment at 76 Academy St., Fitchburg, Massachusetts; I am bending over the front bumper of our blue 1949 Chevrolet.

Our first apartment at 76 Academy St., Fitchburg, Massachusetts; I am bending over the front bumper of our blue 1949 Chevrolet.

As we moved from Fitchburg Massachusetts to Ann Arbor, Michigan, then to Storrs, Connecticut, and finally to Champaign, Illinois, the little book remained on the shelf, alongside the major works of these two groups of vertebrates. From time to time I pick up the little book and thumb through its pages. Each time I do, a flood of memories comes flowing back — our first months together — a 20 year old bride, a 22 year old Second Lieutenant; our very first "home", the apartment at 76 Academy Street in Fitchburg; driving the narrow curving macadam roads with flanking, unforgiving, granite stone walls; the patchwork of small rocky fields enclosed by similar stone walls; a trip to New Hampshire to see the "Old Man of the Mountain", the subject of our classic grade school story, Nathanial Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face"; visiting Plymouth Harbor and viewing Plymouth Rock, where, we had been told as children, the "Pilgrims first stepped ashore" [we knew they had not]; walking across the Bridge at Concord, where the "shots heard 'round the world" were fired; the Village Green at Lexington, where first the Colonists stood up to the "Red Coats"; the "Old Manse at Concord, home to Nathanial Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose stories we had read in grade school, and where Henry David Thoreau came to eat when tired of his frugal cooking in the cabin on near-by Walden Pond; Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott, author of "Little Women" [a favorite of Mary Ruth] and where Mary Ruth was more familiar with the family history than was the young docent for the house; seeing the Old North Church, where Paul Revere's lanterns had hung; going aboard the USS Constitution ["Old Ironsides"] in Charleston Navy Yard; walking over the battle ground at "Bunker Hill", which we, of course, knew from our grade school history really was "Breed's Hill"; becoming familiar with the clipped New England accent — r's where there were none and none where there were; trying to drink the favorite Massachusetts drink, Moxie, without gagging [did the "natives" really like it?]; knowing to ask for a "frappe", if we wanted ice cream in our "milk shakes"; going to the ice cream store at Kimball's farm in nearby Littleton for the "Kimball's Special" ice cream sundae on Sunday afternoons; the proud feeling of wearing an United States Army uniform; the snug feeling of the kaki "Ike jacket"; the dark, wet, snowy night we went for a walk and looked down from a high Fitchburg hill onto the lights of Pritchard Street below.

With all these life-changing events taking place, neither of us had much time to speculate on what lay in the future: for me — unknown military service that eventually progressed from gold bars to eagles; successful completion of graduate school; a long productive research career in academia that took me from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Storrs, Connecticut and eventually back to become Head of my undergraduate department at the University of Illinois. For Mary Ruth — departmental secretary of the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan; completion of her undergraduate degree [which had been interrupted mid-way through when we were married and called to active duty]; a long secretarial career at the University of Illinois. And, our family — two daughters, a grandson and six dogs. But these were all in the future. That Christmas of 1953 we were still adjusting to the sudden changes in our lives; our concerns were of the present, making me even more appreciative of the little white book.

All too rapidly, the years passed by. Eventually we retired and I began dispensing of my library. All my journals were shipped to China, my books were given away or those too dated for any use were tossed in the garbage bin. There now remain only a half dozen or so books, all with sentimental value — among them, Victor Cahalane's "The Mammals of North America", a 1947 Christmas present from my parents, years before I chose Mammalogy as my profession; Roger Tory Peterson's "A field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America", my first field guide to "birding"; and of course the little white Christmas present, the most valued of all. When Mary Ruth and I are gone, most likely neither of our girls will appreciate the sentimental significance of the little white book. I assume it will be tossed, along with the old magazines, videos, and novels, biographies and other books scattered around the house. But, that is all right, the memories it possesses are Mary Ruth's and mine alone; no one else would or could really understand.

So, now you know why each year, as Christmas approaches, I take down the little smudged, white book and thumb through its pages, reading once again, through misty eyes, the inscription on the title page, "To Willie from Dosie", glancing from time to time at the picture of Mary Ruth on my desk, the one I took of her in Fitchburg that long ago first Christmas. When I do, the memories come flowing back — the young 20 year-old bride, the young 22 year-old Second Lieutenant; the apartment at 76 Academy Street; the Bridge at Concord; the Village Green at Lexington; the Old Manse; driving the narrow crooked macadam Massachusetts roads in our blue 1949 Chevrolet; a landscape framed by gray granite stone walls; the profile of "The Old Man of the Mountain"; eating a "Kimball's Special" on Sunday afternoons; the proud feeling of the kaki woolen uniform with its "Ike jacket"; the sensation of wet snow on my face as we looked down upon the lights of Pritchard Street below.

Given our ages, there will not be many more Christmases or many more Christmas presents. But, no matter how many more Christmases are still there for us or how many more presents I receive, none can better the little frayed, smudged, white book of so many Christmases ago, with its simple inscription, "To Willie from Dosie."