“For Mom”

Amazon ordering was a bit too much for my parents, and they had no need of it; living in Southern Florida as retirees, they were never more than a few moments from a gigantic shopping center. In the early days, we’d always take a trip to Barnes & Noble when we visited them — not because we didn’t have our own bookstores, of course, but because they liked to take us shopping and buy us things. I liked going to Publix with my father especially — The aisles! The prices! — but it wasn’t practical to bring orange juice and soy sauce jars home on the plane, especially after September 11th.

Over time, I was able to use my Amazon Prime subscription to return the favor. My Dad needed a new alarm clock. Or an electric razor. Or a phone system. He’d save up his shopping needs for me the way he saved up tech support requests for my sister. We’d sit out by his pool in the mornings, drinking coffee and reading the Palm Beach Post, and I’d open my laptop and we’d shop. Sometimes I would still be visiting when the package arrived. If I’d gone home, he’d call me to let me know that the package had arrived (despite my telling him repeatedly that I had tracking.)

Books were the only things my mother ever wanted to order. In her household, reading was pure selfish pleasure and books were sacred objects, never to be mistreated or kept on the floor. Mom had her favorite authors, like Tana French and John Le Carre, and at first my job was simply to order their newest titles as they came out. In December, she would mail me a much penciled-up “best books of the year” list from the Palm Beach Post, and I would order the ones she circled. Over time, I introduced her to Amazon’s used books. She loved getting books one at a time, from all over the world, as long as they were “very good” quality — no writing in the margins for her. “Who wants to know what other people think?” she asked me once.

When my mother was battling lung cancer, I started an Amazon wish list called “For Mom,” and I took a more active role in finding books to put on it, marking up the New York Times Book Review every Sunday. Mom could be brutal in her estimate of my selections — she called one recent best-selling thriller later made into a movie “fake Hitchcock trash” — but her feedback helped me refine my choices. I was so happy to get one right with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

Two years ago, Mom started complaining more broadly about the books I was sending her, especially the spy novels. They were “badly written,” “too complicated,” had “too many characters.” I realized that my mother, a lifelong book snob, was having trouble following the plots, and I adjusted. I eliminated books with alternating first-person narratives and long Russian character names. Cozy mysteries replaced cold war double agent stories. I found a series about a detective and his German Shepherd.

Mom asked me to switch her to paperbacks. Cancer, the installation of a pacemaker, and significant back pain had made her frail. She could no longer hold up a hardcover when reading in bed. We convinced her to try a kindle, but she loathed it, so I waited until appropriate new releases came out in paperback before ordering them. Mom lost interest in food, and clothing hung limply on her 90-pound frame. She no longer had anywhere to wear the accessories in which she’d once taken such pride. But she still loved to read.

Our phone conversations got shorter and cloudier this spring as my mother found it harder and harder to focus. I wanted to FaceTime with her, but I was busy with Distance Learning and it never seemed like the right time to fight with her about technology. I put Evanovich’s latest on her wish list, intending to send her the paperback when it came out in September as a late birthday present.

Last month, when it seemed clear that Mom was truly slowing down, I asked her if I should hold off on sending books for a while. She told me to keep them coming; having a backlog cheered her and made her feel “rich in book possibility.” I looked at the twenty or so titles on her list and selected three; the latest Louise Penny, an old Dorothy Gilman, and an Inspector Montalbano I thought might remind her of her freewheeling time in Italy as a young woman. I’m not sure if she had the chance to read them.

My mother died a few days ago. Her kidneys shut down, she stopped eating and drinking, and she died in her sleep while my father oversaw the installation of a hospital bed she would never use. I had not seen her since the wintertime, as Coronavirus in my city and then the special craziness of Florida made it inadvisable to visit. Like so many other people around the globe, I had missed first the mundane things — like sharing a holiday meal, or doing the crossword together — and then the big things, like saying goodbye and telling her I loved her. And now I have no idea what I’m going to do with two birthday cards, unmailed, new paperbacks coming out every day, and an Amazon wish list titled “For Mom.”



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