Sunday, May 10, 2009

My mother the reader

She'd be 87 if she were alive. She died, too young, at 65. I miss her every day. Which is not to say that ours was a smooth relationship. Oh no. We had one of those complex, maddening, mutually crazy-making mother-daughter bonds. Lots of love and resentment and guilt and anger and love. But a bond it was, not fully broken even by death. To this day, almost 22 years on, I still slip up sometimes, usually on a Sunday, and reach for the phone to call her. Then I catch myself--I remember she doesn't exist--and I have to sit and steady my breath. Not today, though. Mother's Day seems designed to remind the motherless of what is gone from our lives.

Most people say the loss of a child is the hardest to survive. Ayelet Waldman provoked such pitiless rage when she wrote in an essay few years back that she'd rather one of her children die than her husband Michael Chabon that now she's written a whole book titled Bad Mother, its publication date cannily timed for maximum publicity to coincide with, yep, you know what day. Me, I don't know, I guess everyone's different, and anyway you can't quantify something as subjective as the loss of a loved one, but it's hard for me to imagine another absence as definitive as the absence of your mother. She (at least if you're lucky enough to have had your mother with you, mothering you, from the start and assuming she wasn't an out-and-out horror show) is part of the landscape of your life from the moment of your first breath. Part of it? She is the landscape. Or she's oxygen. Or water. She's your skin. Choose your metaphor; the point is that unlike friends and lovers and even children, all these characters who are added on to the narrative as your life progresses, your mother was always there. So that when, ultimately, she's not there anymore, the hole is enormous. Never to be filled.

So today let me pay tribute to my mother in a way I know would please her, even though there's no her anymore and this is really for myself. For myself, then, let me say how happy I am that she was a reader, and how grateful that she turned me into one, right from the start.

Mom was a schoolteacher. She'd worked her way through college at Wayne State University in the 1930s, and started out in the 1940s teaching English and drama at a Detroit high school. She took some years off in the 1950s when she had her two kids, then went back to work and spent the rest of her long career teaching elementary school. She was a great teacher, one of those whose former students came back to visit her for years afterward, who credited her with instilling a love of learning, who were always hugging her and giving her gifts. Away from the classroom, at home, when she wasn't grading papers or preparing lesson plans or cooking, she was reading.

With me on her lap, also reading. I know that my love of books started as a toddler with her reading to me, lots of Dr. Seuss above all. But as soon as I learned how to read myself--in first grade, for this was long before the current pressure for kids as young as 2 to start reading kicked in--we were off and running, Mom and me, as a reading team. We'd go to the library together and take out books and head home and snuggle up in the big brown easy chair and open our books and sit there, the two of us, reading. For hours and hours. Within a few years we were reading the same books. I remember an Agatha Christie kick we got onto together. We read Christie's entire Hercule Poirot oeuvre, Mom reading one, me on her lap reading another, then swapping, over the course of several months until we'd read every single one. She read James Michener's Hawaii, and passed it on to me. And Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and passed it on to her. And so it went.

She spent way too many hours in that chair reading. If she'd have moved her body around a bit she'd no doubt have lived longer. Since I've gained a lot of weight in middle age--Mom, you wouldn't know your skinny-as-a-katydid daughter these days--I'm lately trying to be conscious about forcing myself to spend some of my precious reading time not-reading, exercising instead, so as to ensure the maximum possible reading years ahead. It's hard, though. There's nothing like a book. For all the obvious reasons. All the wonders contained therein. And for another reason more specific to me. Books=Mom. I believe they always will.

Now I'm going to go have a cup of coffee and read for a while. Her name, by the way, was Elaine.