The other day someone donated a copy of “The Friendship Book of Francis Gay” to the library. Does anyone remember this thing? It came out every year and it had an inspirational quotation or short story for every day of the year. Every three or four pages had some nice nature photography, or something equally inspiring. A proto-Chicken Soup for the Soul, if you will. It always had this dark blue cover and almost always had some kind of flower on the front.I remember buying this book for my Grandma every Christmas. I got her the same thing every year! (I assume the quotations changed, otherwise that would be a pretty shit gift, but my Grandma never complained). In fact, I don’t think my Grandma ever cottoned on to the idea that it was meant to be read as a daily devotion either. Many years I would check in with her in late January to see how she was enjoying the Friendship Book.
“It’s just wonderful dear. I’m already up to the middle of May!”
Come to think of it, I was pretty unimaginative when it came to gifts for other people too. One year my Mom hinted heavily that she was out of her favourite perfume. “Youth Dew” by Estee Lauder. The positive response I got from getting her this gift one year meant that this became the default gift for her every year. It was only when I was much older that I realized that there was no way that a normal human person could make their way through an entire bottle of perfume in a year. I imagine my Mom has a secret stash somewhere in her house. A drawer or a box filled with a dozen unopened bottles of Estee Lauder Youth Dew. Can perfume go bad? I sure hope not.
Back to the Friendship Book of Francis Gay. This particular donation was the 1988 edition, so I know for a fact that this was one of the ones I would have given my Grandma. Flipping through it now as an adult, I’m struck by how much of it is “Christian Faith” based. I don’t think it was billed as a “Christian Devotional” but many of the days are adorned by a solitary Bible quotation.
April 17. “For we walk by faith, not sight”. II Corinthians 5:7
January 10. “Aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands.” I Thessalonians 4:11
And so on.
Other days have little inspirational stories. I particularly like this one from April 28:
The rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find the Southern fisherman lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe.
“Why are you not out fishing? asked the rich man.
“Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” replied the fisherman.
“Why don’t you catch more than you need?” asked the industrialist.
“What would I do with it?” said the fisherman.
“You could earn more money,” was the reply. “You could use it to have a motor fixed to your boat. Then you could go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.”
“What would I do then?” asked the fisherman.
“Then you could sit down and enjoy life,” said the industrialist.
“What do you think I’m doing right now?” asked the contented fisherman.
Some stories just don’t make any sense at all. Like this one:
The new vicar was paying a first call on one of his parishioners.
“I understand, ” he said to the old man, “that you’re the only person in the parish who can tell the correct time by the church clock.”
“That’s right,” came the answer. “When the hands of that clock stand at 12, then it strikes two.”
“But which is right?” asked the bewildered clergyman.
“Neither-it’s 20 minutes to seven!”
As I was flipping through the book, I began to wonder about this Francis Gay fellow. Who was he? Why did he produce such a book every year (and supposedly continues to do so. A 2012 edition is listed on Amazon, although strangely Francis Gay’s name no longer appears on the front). He often refers to “the lady of the house” in his entries, so I’m assuming Francis Gay wasn’t, if you know what I’m getting at. Or maybe he was, and “the lady of the house” was his sister or his mother, but for the sake of argument let’s say he was married. The first one appeared in 1939, so I think we can safely assume Francis Gay is no longer with us. One website speculates that the Friendship Books were started by one man and are carried on by his family. I couldn’t find any evidence of this. Wikipedia has an entry for an Edwin Francis Gay, a professor of economics who died in 1946. Could he have led a double life and compiled these friendship books in his spare time over the last years of his life? Was he a boring old economics prof by day, and a bit of a sweet old sissy at night? Unlikely.
I’m afraid the truth is less romantic. It’s far more likely that Francis Gay never really existed at all. It seems he was created as a weekly feature for Scotland’s Sunday Post newspaper. Over the years, the paper would include little stories and little bits of inspiration gathered together by this fictional persona, probably made up by a committee of editors when they had some extra space to fill. These Friendship Books were merely compilations of stuff already published in the Sunday Post, with a smattering of bible quotations and nature photos to round out the whole year. No Virginia, there really isn’t a Santa Claus, apparently.
But my Grandma didn’t know that.
My Grandma would have been 100 years old on August 24 this year. (Coincidentally, my Dad shared a birthday with his mother-in-law and would have been 72 on the same day.) I used to like to listen to her stories about the “old days” and growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I remember asking her what it must have been like, with the food stamps, and the uncertainty, and the stress of getting by as recent immigrants from Sweden in Winnipeg’s North End. She told me once that “We never felt poor because we felt loved.” That’s stuck with me over the years, and when I think of my Grandma I think of that line. It was simple, sweet and sincere and it seemed to humanize her experience.
Take that, Francis Gay, whoever you are!