My Grandmother’s Death Presents a Journalistic Regret and a Literary Goldmine

My Grandmother’s Death Presents a Journalistic Regret and a Literary Goldmine

By David Himmel

When my grandmother, Joyce Himmel, died on May 11, it marked the end of a very long era. She was just two-and-a-half weeks shy of turning ninety-five. She wasn’t sick, really. A near perfect picture of health and resilience for the better part of a century, in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, her heart just wore out. It was quick and peaceful. Hard to complain about. She had a long and happy and thrilling life.

I could say more, so much more, but this isn’t about Nonny as much as its about her book club.

Now that Nonny’s gone, the time is here to clean out the house she lived in for fifty-three years. It was much simpler when Poppy died ten years ago. Other than one less person at the dinner table and all the emotional heartache that comes with that, there wasn’t much to sort out. Nonny was still here. The house remained intact. There was only a light looting of Poppy’s clothes, watches, ties, cuff links, and three-foot high stacks of 8.5” x 11” yellow note pads. I’ve only just last month had to purchase a note pad. Even in death, my grandfather was mindful of how I spent my money.

But now, there’s an empty house full of memories and trinkets and furniture and spices and Nonny’s book club notebook.

It’s a small, black notebook, about six by nine inches with removable lined pages. Nonny, an incredible student all through college (a Northwestern alumna) who never used a calculator and later became a librarian, was a remarkable notetaker. The notebook has every book read typed out along with the author, the date of the book club meeting, and the book club member who presented it to the group. The first entry is “12/4   Cal Solomon– ‘Silver Nutmeg’   Norah Lofts.” The year was 1947. The final entry was in December 2016. It reads “12/7   ‘The Green Hills of Africa’    Hemmingway  -J. Krengel.”

Do the math. That’s seventy years. Seventy years of monthly meetings and what the last leader of the group called in the Letter of Dissolution “avid participation.” This book club of my grandmother’s may well have been the longest active book club in America. At least one of them, right? Membership changed, sure. Women moved or died or left because sometimes people don’t get along, but I do believe a majority of the founders remained involved until that very last Hemmingway book in December 2016.

And therein lies my journalistic regret. Why didn’t I write about this book club and these women? Surely some newspaper or magazine would be interested to hear the story of these women and the books they chose throughout seven decades of American history and friendship and baked goods and gossip and coffee and families. If not publication, certainly I would have liked to know the story — stories.


I can’t know what she thought of it then or how her opinion of it may have changed over the years. But I can know what words were going through her head at that time.


I knew Nonny was in a book club. She would sometimes tell me about it — the books read or some small bit of gossip — I never thought to ask her why she chose the books she did. Why did she choose Plath’s The Bell Jar in July of 1972? Or what about Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in January 1964? In March of 1960, with her eldest child still two years from entering high school, she chose The American High School Today by James B. Conant. I can assume why that book was of interest to her. But there’s so much more to know. And now I’ll never know it.

I could talk to the few remaining women. I could talk to the kids who survive the dead ones. But I’ll never know the real truth with the real grit of why. And because of that, I failed as a journalist. I realize, I’m not much of one at all. There was a story under my big nose the whole time and I ignored it or couldn’t see it. Shame on me.

And shame on me for not asking Nonny more questions.

But here’s how I take Nonny’s guiding life principle “to take what happens to me and make it good for me” rather than stew in a pile of my own steamy make. I have Nonny’s book club notebook. I have approximately 700 book recommendations from a gaggle of women who were picking books off the shelves through what I think are America’s most exciting times — for good and ill.

I probably won’t read all of them. But I may well take a stab at reading all of the books Joyce Himmel brought to the meetings. And there are a few classics others brought to the table that I haven’t read yet. In March 1947, Joyce was two months shy of turning twenty-three. She wasn’t even a mother yet. She had only been married year and three weeks when Edith Stein brought Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to book club. I assume my twenty-two-year-old grandmother read it. 

I can’t know what she thought of it then or how her opinion of it may have changed over the years. But I can know what words were going through her head at that time.

With this notebook, I have access to a time machine that allows me to share the stories Nonny consumed. And in that way, her book club may still live. It’s only one member strong, and that member is a forty-year-old man, but hey, it’s something.

It’s also a reminder not to overlook a potentially great story some newspaper or magazine will underpay me to write.

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