Literary Mamahood: A Gift To (And From) My Mother

My mother, her adorable grandson and, yes, a book.

On Mother’s Day every year, I do a little freak out about what I’m going to get my mother as a gift but, honestly, I probably don’t need to. I’ve definitely scored wins here and there (hand-painted pottery by my children = home run). Here’s a partial retrospective of some of the presents I’ve offered up over the years: gift certificate for a massage, books, gift certificate to her favorite movie theatre and restaurants, books, framed photos of my children, books. Maybe you see the pattern here? There is nothing like a book, for my mother. Her house is filled with books, stacked and happy, on side tables, bookcases, coffee tables, and night stands. A passion for the written word is genetically coded into our family tree. So, for Mother’s Day this year, I offer this love letter to my mother; a gift in response to her gift of the written word, to me, that has sustained me throughout my life, a steady stream of love and fuel with no end in sight.

The first book I remember loving so hard I wanted to be inside the book, a part of the world reflected in each black-lettered word — is Corduroy. It’s the story of an adorable teddy bear that sits on the shelf of a large department store, with a broken shoulder strap on his overalls, and gets into a bit of trouble as he searches for the lost button for the strap. Eventually, a girl named Lisa buys him, brings him home, sews on a new button, and tells him how happy she is that they found each other. I felt, every night, as if I lived the lost and found story alongside the two of them. At a time in my life when the ground felt shaky beneath my feet, and my parents argued angrily every evening, there was a comfort in the story of a forever friendship between a little girl like me, and a cuddly, mischievous bear. Our home-life at the time could be tense and chaotic, but I loved the feel of my mother’s body snuggled against mine, listening to the sound of her voice recite the words I knew so well. I was hooked on the transcendence of a good story, thanks to my mother, and on some level, the way it brought relief from the world around me. What I didn’t understand then was the way stories also offer a deeper understanding of humanity and what a beautiful gift from my mother this was.

Many of my memories, as a child, are of my mother lying in bed; head against the brass headboard, with a cigarette in one hand (Carleton 100s!), the fingers of her other resting lightly on the ever so thin edges of a book page. Her mind is on another plane as she floats in between the physical world and the stories play out deep in the synapses of her brain.

Similarly, as a child I read with my whole body. I’d obsessively crinkle the pages of “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?” soaking in the story through my skin, it seemed. My younger brother playing Legos on the floor, annoyed at the sounds I was obliviously making, would yell at me to stop. So, instead, I’d fan the pages quietly, feeling the wisp of air on my face as I did.

My mother’s life was threaded by all manner, style, and genre of the written word. As a child growing up in an abusive home, books were her saviors. They offered a way out of the mayhem; temporary relief from the rage of her father. She came to books for diversion, using them as noise blockers, but found deliverance, a bridge to new worlds instead.

When I was fourteen, we moved to a larger house, deeper into the wooded suburbs of Long Island where I too felt removed and distant from the physical world around me. There was little to do or little I wanted to do, uninterested in boys, drinking, and parties on the beach, except read.

I spent most of my time in our pastel-colored family room. White built-in bookshelves lined two walls of the room. It’s where I felt most connected to my mother. The shelves housed her collection of saving grace: poetry (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton), fiction (Erich Segal, Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Joyce Carol Oates, non-fiction (“Helter Skelter” scared the hell out of me as a teenager and yet I could not put it down), and, the Erica Jong-Fear of Flying female empowerment/self-help genre.

My home life was far from abusive in the way my mother’s was as a child. Still, I was left to my own devices living with a quietly neglectful stepfather and my increasingly distant mother as their own relationship broke down and she spent more and more time away from the house. Books offered me a way to understand my sense of isolation, deepening insecurities, discomfort with my changing body and the disconnection I felt from my fellow teens. But they also bridged me to a burgeoning intellectual understanding of what the world could be: there existed a universe of complexity beyond the expansive front lawns and closed minds of my upper middle-class town.

My mother understood that — on a cellular level. She knew my love of books was a part of her legacy. She quietly offered me the gift of vision: books like telescopes, helping to magnify, through stories, the possibilities that existed “out there.” It worked, too.

After college in New York City, where the East Village and all its defiance (at the time) became my home, I set off on adventures around the world. I lived in a school bus on the Eno River in North Carolina, and barracks-style living on a kibbutz in Israel. I traveled the country shooting documentary video on women’s rights organizations and moved to Seattle with a backpack, the promise of a couch to sleep on, and an old, beaten soft-cover copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I now have a massive bookcase filled with books of my own (even one that I contributed to!) that my own children pick through when the mood strikes.

My mother’s love of books seems as naturally passed down to me as my brown hair or short stature — through blood and DNA — but was fostered through her lifelong romance with the written word. There has never been a time in my life I can recall when books have not been a central character in my life story; they are best friends, the most intimate of companions. My mother taught me that words are not only powerful connectors to the world inside our own brains, skin, and souls but they are mirrors of humanity and, so often, reminders of the potential that exists in all of us. The more we seek to understand ourselves, the more we uncover about all human beings. My mother’s love of the written word is the deepest, most lasting, and most useful life lesson she ever imparted. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And thanks for always making my gift-giving on Mother’s Day a little easier.

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