The mystery of the purple book in my mother's drawer

My mother, who passed away in February, was the most organized person I know. When she retired after 50 years as an executive secretary to the chief of a hospital medical division, she took with her that day her name plate and a potted green plant. I, on the other hand, left a job after seven years recently, and it took me seven days to clean out the detritus of my days working in H.R. There were documents, pictures, mugs, tubes of lipstick and mascara, old newspapers, half-used sticky note pads, CDs, magnets from the filing cabinet — well, you get the picture.

But I digress, back to my mother. She was amazingly organized, but not fanatic about it. Or maybe she was. If it was Tuesday at her house, and you looked in the TV Guide, the pages for Sunday and Monday listings were carefully torn out. “Why not, who needs them?” she’d say. There were never postcards or perfume samples in magazines. In fact there were no magazines in the house. After three days they’d be given away. (Mine are, instead, in a grand pile under my kitchen table in a “to be read” pile.)

One day, oh about 20 years before she passed away, she told me not to send her any more birthday or Mother’s Day cards. They were, to her, a colossal waste of money. Instead, a few days before these holidays, we’d go together to the drug store or Greetings & Readings. I’d pick out the most expensive but sentimental card in the rack, read it to her (in front of God and everyone), then return it to the rack. She loved it; the onlookers sighed and shook their heads.

So you get the picture. My mother was an avid reader. In her later years, she mastered the Kindle and was always reading something. I do not remember there every being a book of hers in our organized and happy home.

Except one.

In the open draw of her secretary chest (which housed my father’s clothes), there, modestly hidden in a raised cubby, was “the purple book.” It had no title. It rested among neatly organized monthly bills, a check book and a steno pad with running notes on the mortgage and BGE balances.

As a young child, I was intrigued. I was not yet a reader, but I loved books with pictures. This book had none — not a single picture. Only lines and lines of text. But there was something fascinating in the middle of the book: laminated “spinners” with numbers and colors. I’d go to that book sometimes for no particular reason except to spin the colored wheels.

Why would my mother keep such a book? What was so important about it? It wasn’t the least bit interesting and yet it was the only book I ever saw in her desk. It wasn’t until very many years later that I learned the purple book was all about the sacred rhythm method of birth control (complete with colored wheels to calculate “safe sex” days), which my parents, devout Catholics, believed to be the “only” way. So I, the innocent but curious, whenever I wanted, spun the wheels like I was on “Wheel of Fortune.” You may thank me any time, my two younger brothers. Any time at all.

Margaret Collier is a retired human resources professional. Her email address is

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