Among the many fascinating things about Lillian Kaiser (pictured here on the year of her graduation from Bryn Mawr), she is the only person I know who has ever shot a book. She did this when she was eleven, in 1942, in the basement of her family home on Summerland Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. The book was The Past Lives Again, by Edna McGuire, and why she chose this book to shoot I do not know. But shoot it she did, one summer day when her brothers were away and her father was sleeping upstairs in the house.
This last fact-her brothers Chuckie and Alfie being gone-is perhaps the most pertinent because they would have never let their younger sister shoot their .22-caliber rifle had they known about it. It was their gun, and many a time Lillian Smith (her maiden name) had sat at the top of the basement stairs watching Chuckie, Alfie and Bruce, her oldest brother, fire away at a metal target. “I would sit at the top of the stairs desperately wanting to take part,” remembers Lillian, but her brothers never let her, although later on Alfie did relent and show her how to break down the gun, clean it and reassemble it. These skills came in handy when her older brothers went off to fight in the second world war and Lillian, shouldering her rifle, walked around the neighborhood with her mother making sure that all the homes had drawn their black-out shades down during air raid warnings. This was serious business for her, her way of helping in the national emergency, and although she did not really need to carry the gun her mother understood and let her do it.
The basement was perfect for target practice because its concrete walls were “like a fortress,” says Lillian. With her father sleeping upstairs, and her mother off visiting Aunt Suzy, and her brothers off somewhere, Lillian stole into the basement, uncovered the gun, and experienced the thrill not only of using a firearm for the first time, but of doing something that was forbidden to her. “The use of the book,” she explains, “was so that the noise of the impact would not wake up my father.” Her father worked nights at Allied Chemical and Dye and slept days, and he would not have liked it, not one bit, if she had woken him up. Nor would her brothers have liked it if they had found out what she was doing with their gun—”surely would have beat the hell out of me,” as she puts it—but she cleaned it afterward and picked all up the casings and none of them was ever the wiser.
The bullet passed through the cover between the words “Lives” and “Again,” and it’s fascinating to flip through the book and mark its progress: small and circular in the front but gradually widening out as if a person took his thumb and pushed down on the paper and indented it and made a hole in the exact same spot throughout the pages. The bullet eventually slowed and made less and less of an impression as it went along until on page 397, there is no more trace of it. What happened to the bullet fragment? Lillian may have thrown it away when she was hiding the evidence so her brothers would not discover her and punish her for her rebellion.
As interesting as it is to shoot a book, it is not the best part of the story, however. The best part was revealed when we saw Lillian, now in her seventies, at a Mother’s Day celebration when, as part of The Dangerous Quest, she showed her grandsons Hank and Gabe how to wrap a package in brown paper. The package she chose to wrap was none other than The Past Lives Again, and to learn how she did it, please read on.