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December 17, 2013

Jane Maas and Her Christmas Angel

Posted by emily

Jane Maas is known as "a legend" in the advertising world, and her first book, MAD WOMEN, reveals what it was really like to be a woman in the industry in the 1960s. Her latest book, THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL, is a lot less tell-all. Full of love and faith and the spirit of Christmas, it's the story of an ornamental angel carved by Owen Thomas for the woman who would break his heart. Owen brings the angel from his Welsh home to America, where she looks down over five generations, witnessing their triumphs and tragedies, and reminding all who look upon her that laughter and goodwill can remedy even the heaviest burden. In this very moving piece, Jane opens up about her own guardian angel: her Aunt Mary, who would send Jane books throughout each stage of her life, which contained --- almost magically ---  exactly the wisdom she needed.

The first book I ever received from my Aunt Mary was a child’s illustrated version of KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE. I was five years old, and the book so enthralled me that I named my first doll Kay, after King Arthur’s foster-brother. Aunt Mary sent me a book for Christmas every year for the rest of her life. They were always books I needed, even if I didn’t know I needed them.

When I was a teenager, my head full of romance, she sent me books about strong women, like Bernard Shaw’s JOAN OF ARC. Right after college, when all my classmates were busy getting married, Aunt Mary deluged me with biographies of women and careers: Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, George Eliot.

A few years later, when my advertising career threatened to become more important than my family, she shifted gears. “What? You’ve never read LITTLE WOMEN?” she asked me in mock horror. And sent me the dog-eared copy that she herself had read and reread.

Aunt Mary stepped up the tempo during my 40s and 50s, when I was engulfed in career, husband and family. She wanted me to expand my horizons, so travel was her focus. I received the complete Janet Flanner Paris Journals, Henry Adams’s MONT SAINT-MICHEL AND CHARTRES, Robert Graves on Greece, John Ruskin on Venice, Samuel Pepys on London, Rose Macaulay on Trebizond. She was in her 70s now, devouring book after book, and sending them on to me. She discovered Saul Bellow and Primo Levi, rediscovered Anthony Trollope, reread MADAME BOVARY (in translation) and lamented she was too old now to learn French. She lectured me on the importance of not being put off by Russian patronymics --- the only rule of hers I ever disobeyed.

During her last years, Aunt Mary read more poetry than prose: Eliot and the Metaphysicals were the poets most often at her bedside. She liked George Herbert. “Of course,” she said. “A fellow Welshman.”

The last book Aunt Mary gave me arrived the Christmas after her death. It was the journal that she kept during her four years of college. With it came a note to me, written a few weeks before she died. “For Jane,” she wrote, in that sharply slanted hand. “The daughter I never had.” The last entry, written on her graduation day, was from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

“…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”