I was shopping for baby gifts at Barnes & Noble last week—and headed straight to the children’s section to revel in picture books. Always my favorite part of the book store; always brings out my inner child.
I walked down memory lane, reacquainting myself with the The Grouchy Ladybug, rhyming once again with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, commiserating with Alexander about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. One glance at their covers and I slipped down the rabbit hole, back to the days when my children still fit on my lap and I could envelop them not only with my arms but with words, beautiful words.
The lucky among us as the centennial of Mother’s Day approaches this year can echo the lines of Strickland Gillilan’s poem: I had a mother who read to me …
For us, the love of reading is forever entwined with a mother’s love, with the sensation of her voice, her breath in our ear as she read, taking us to wonderful places: sailing across Paris holding tight to a bouquet of balloons, dropped into flour-dusted night kitchens, journeying to the moon and back again. For as long as I can remember my mother surrounded me with words, English and French. Some Yiddish now and then.
My mother was forever reading and I have deep, long memories of library visits. Those visits are as much a part of my childhood as grocery shopping. Both fed us.
As a child I loved paging through Yousuf Karsh’s Portfolio, reading his recollections of photographing Hemingway, Picasso, Churchill. I can still summon his portrait of Pablo Casals caught at just the perfect moment, Karsh wrote, when the sun filled the space where Casals was playing his cello.
Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was on her nightstand just beneath Colette’s My Mother’s House.
It fell to my husband and me to clean out my mother’s apartment after she died. Going through her books was to follow the map of her interests. They spanned continents—history, philosophy, biography, art, religion. Martin and I paged through as many as we could. There were hundreds. She had scrawled questions in the margins, making notations as if she was talking to the author as she read—conversing with Albert Camus and Andrei Codrescu. We found New York Times articles slipped between the pages of many. Barbara Tuchman’s obituary inhabited a chapter of A Distant Mirror. I had given her that book when I worked at Knopf, Tuchman’s publisher, in the late ’70s. Mom was thrilled beyond belief when I told her I had met the eminent historian. I know I became a writer, in part, because to be her daughter was to be bathed in language, in its cadences, in the richness and fun that wordplay could bring.
One book was pristine—no notations, no articles about its author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. From the inscription, I gathered this unread, possibly even unopened copy of Words that Hurt, Words That Heal, had been given to her, perhaps by someone whom she had verbally eviscerated. My mother could use words as weapons—a devastating characteristic. Still, I had to chuckle; how telling that she left that one on the shelf.
Martin and I took a few books to remember, sent a few on to one of my sisters and donated the rest to the library nearby. We left the clipped articles intact, enjoying the idea of readers stumbling upon her unique filing system.
Ours was a stormy relationship, my mother’s and mine, pockmarked with estrangements, studded with loving exchanges. She refused to speak to me for nearly three of the last four years of her life — know that we reconciled before the end. During those months of silence, those years of no words, I dearly missed learning what she was reading, and thinking; I missed talking shop. Books had always been our lifeline to one another.
As I left the children’s section, Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever caught my eye. How may mothers have been sucker punched by that book like I was? The book ends with the grown up son gathering his now elderly mother into his arms. He sings to her his version of the quatrain that has bound them together since his infancy: “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my Mommy you’ll be.” This year, I read those lines with different eyes, with a different heart. Not only because I can no longer gather mother up in my arms, but because I never could.
Yet all I have to do is open a book, or read Edgar Allen Poe’s eponymous poem, to hear my mother’s voice.
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
This is the power of books and mothers. I am grateful, so grateful, to have had a mother who read to me.