Mama bird – the original search engine

by Julie Frayn on May 29, 2012 in  Mama Bird

BookRiot posted a picture on Facebook a while back that said “Librarian, the original search engine.” I L’ed OL. Just replace librarian with Mom, and I totally relate.

Long before computers were as common in homes as flush toilets, Mom could find any bit of information you needed. No Google, no Yahoo. Well, lots of yahoos, but none of them on a computer. No need for any of it, Mom was the answer finder.

The mere mention of anything that interested you, puzzled you, was needed for a school project – and out came the reference books. Encyclopedia Britannica, Funk & Wagnalls, Oxford, Webster’s, even Audubon. If she couldn’t find the answer there, she’d make phone calls, she’d hit the library. She would even write letters. The old fashioned kind. With stamps and flap licking and everything!

Me and my Search Engine

When I was a teenager I was a huge fan of Agatha Christie. I still am, but I ran out of her books to read by the time I turned 18. I owned scads of them, but didn’t know if I’d read them all, didn’t know how to find out the entire roster of her titles. That’s okay. My mother did.

Mom pulled all my books from my bookshelf one by one, made lists of titles and publishers. She phoned Britain, found addresses for every publishing house on the list. Then she wrote each one and asked for their Christie titles. By the time she was done she had catalogued every Agatha Christie book ever published, alternate titles, dates of publication, anthologies. She even discovered that Agatha published six romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. And she did all of this without a computer, or my knowledge. Sneaky devil, my Mom.

Along with letters from publishers with very cool stamps on the envelopes, she received free stuff! A mug with Agatha’s profile in silhouette that became transparent when hot coffee was poured into it, revealing the name of the publishing house. A gold-looking (but alas, not real gold) bookmark, also with Agatha’s silhouette. A bronze paper weight with Agatha’s likeness. Wonder how many shillings of postage THAT puppy took to get across the Atlantic?

Letter upon letter from overseas publishing houses, most handwritten and personally signed, landed in our mailbox. Sometimes I miss the good old days, the rush of actual mail. Mail that isn’t bills or advertising or pre-approved credit card applications. I have all those letters, and the list she typed on her old Underwood, buried in one of my many memory boxes.

I hate that I have to keep memories in a box. Maybe I’ll go on a memory hunt and find them all.

Mom and her Search Engine

Times have changed. Mom still doesn’t have a computer, but I rarely need her help finding information. If she wonders aloud about something or asks a question I can’t answer, I Google it and amaze her with my knowledge, sometimes before she can finish asking the question.

“How did you know that?” she will ask. Because I’m brilliant like my Mom, and a little bit magic too.

Or maybe because I learned from the original search engine how to find stuff out.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheila May 29, 2012 at 9:03 am

This is absolutely wonderful and so true! My mom and dad bought their first set of encyclopedias when I was born – even though they could barely pay the rent. That’s been a powerful example to me about what’s important 😉 Great post and lovely tribute to your mom!


Julie May 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm

She still has all of them, gathering dust in the basement. Except her dictionary (2 volumes each weighing about 10 lbs) – she refers to those all the time even though they are about 30 years out of date! Love it…

Sean P. Farley May 29, 2012 at 9:29 am

Clearly you are very lucky to have such an amazing mom! The lengths she went to, my goodness. But it’s all so true, though, isn’t it? I mean, back then it just seemed NORMAL to do it that way? There was no comparison, nothing else to consider except making phone calls (rotary, anyone?) and sending letters. I think it’s fascinating what your mom went through for you. I, too, miss getting real letters in the mail. I so look forward to Christmas because we have to send PACKAGES, real pieces of mail we can’t send through the computer. Good post, Julie. :)


Julie May 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I am incredibly lucky, and she is very amazing. As if amazing isn’t good enough, have to add very to convey her amazingness. She has created a tart recipe for me, written me poems (one particularly hilarious one about my grade nine grad date). She is Awesome with a capital A.

Jo Anne May 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Julie, this is lovely. My mom, too, was a font of knowledge. I always felt badly that she could not have shared it more widely, although she did a lot of volunteering in the community. We, too, had an encyclopedia, and I have one to this day, an out-of-date Encyclopedia Britannica, which I cannot bear to get rid of. I confess I use Google more than the Britannica these days, but I used to love to just browse the pages after looking something up – reading biographies of now unknown eighteenth-century politicians and savants. That’s hard to do that Google, if you don’t even know their names.


Julie May 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm

My mom was a volunteer also, a lot of that at our school library. I still sneak down to Mom’s family room and flip through the Funk & Wagnalls. Still smells like smart, even if just a bit dustier.

Lynn May 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I love it! My mom was the reason I started reading. I figured if she didn’t know the answer, I’d have to read and find it. I thought she knew EVERYTHING. :-)


Julie May 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm

It’s a lost art, Lynn. These days my kids just look it up themselves. If we’re out and something comes up that we need to find out I’ll say, let’s look that up when we get home. Before I finish saying it, two kids on two different smart phones are finding out the answers. Progress!! :)

J Timothy Quirk May 30, 2012 at 5:15 pm

This was a wonderful piece and it speaks to me! I do wish ACTUAL mail (non-bills/non-junkmail) was exciting again! Here’s to your MOM-a great search engine, and to you, Julie, because your memories are not hidden in a memory box, but lovingly shared with us in these posts!


Julie May 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Thanks, Joe! Aw, I got misty about the memories not being in boxes. I guess the blog will be my new box, but not dusty, and not shoved in the dungeon under the stairs. 😀

Carolyn May 31, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Beautiful words Julie. Love the magic… and that old dictionary that is outdated. It’s hard not to laugh when she corrects the kids about an antiquated word that is used differently. What was that last one? :)


Julie June 1, 2012 at 8:33 am

I believe it was ‘hanky panky’ – mine still talk, and laugh, about it. 😉

Jenny June 1, 2012 at 7:46 pm

This is such a lovely homage to your Mom, and what a wonderful Mom she was!! I was saying the other day that with all the questions my 4 year old asks, I have come realize how little I do and don’t know. When I don’t know something he tells me to look it up on the computer! Times have changed but those wonderful bonds between child’s interest and their parents who encourage them have not. Thanks for the piece.


Julie June 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Thank you, Jenny! Been a long time since there’s been a four year old around here. Love that he is computer savvy already! Times have changed yes, but still the same. Still need our moms! 😀

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