Today is my mother’s 90th birthday. She still lives on her own, though we’ve started having significant conversations about how long that will continue. Mom has always been one of those delightful women who truly means it when she says she doesn’t want anything for birthdays or Mothers Day.
For someone who doesn’t want much, she certainly gives, and I think about the many gifts she has given me. One gift is a sort of tough-minded independence and self-reliance, which she instilled through example: she was the one in the family who fixed the appliances, climbed onto the roof to clean the gutters, kept a tidy tool bench down in the basement. She built our back porch entirely on her own, and again twenty years later when that one needed replacing.
She made sure we all saved for college, since we needed to go and needed to figure out how to pay for it, too. I also clearly remember her outrage on my behalf when my kindergarten teacher scolded me that flexing my bicep was “unladylike”. Mom had her own definition of what it meant to be a lady.
More than anything, thought, she instilled in me a love of reading. Her own love was self-taught, since no one read to my mother when she was a little girl. She was the next-to-last of nine children, and, when she was three, her own mother died. It was as much as her father and aging grandparents could do to keep the household running; there was no time to snuggle up with a child and a book at bedtime.
Even so, she discovered the power and allure of books early. She recounts hiding for hours up in the canopy of one of the big backyard trees, consuming the latest library book while her sister hunted for her, calling her name over and over, to come in to do chores.
While I was growing up, though, I almost never saw my mother reading, beyond her daily fix of The Washington Post. What I didn’t understand until years later is that, at some point while she was raising her children, she felt she had to give up reading books entirely because once she started reading she couldn’t stop, no matter who needed what. Still, I’m not sure I believe the story that when, as a toddler, I cracked my head open on the front sidewalk, my mother barely glanced up from her book and told my sister, “Head wounds always bleed a lot. Hold some paper towels against it.”
I don’t clearly remember my mother reading to me either, in a bedtime ritual, but I do remember, ahead of my starting kindergarten, her reading with me, typically using the newspaper, to sound out words and build them into sentences. That was around the same time that we began our weekly trips to the library. It was like being let loose in a supermarket or toy store to get whatever I wanted.
There was a time when my mother worried that I wasn’t going to be a reader. My third-grade spelling was hopeless and I seemed to be magnetically drawn to the television set. In the middle grades, I remember I was an impatient reader, unwilling to stick with a story if it didn’t immediately grab me. She was eager for me to read and love the books she had loved as a girl: Rebecca, Jane Eyre, How Green Was My Valley, The Once and Future King, and so many others.
She needn’t have worried. Whenever I finish a book now, even if it’s while I’m brushing my teeth, I pick up the next one and start in on it; there is never a time when I’m not in the midst of reading a book.
I thank her every day for instilling in me a love of reading, which remains for me a continual source of joy. Reading is perhaps the best way to connect to the larger world, to understand experiences that are not our own, to gain empathy for those we would not otherwise know.
From my love of reading came my love of writing. It was the only possible way to get closer to the story.
So, for my thoroughly practical, fiercely independent mother who more than anyone carved the path of my life, what could I do to show her how much I appreciated everything she had done for me? What do you give a woman who doesn’t want gifts? I wrote her a love letter—in the form of a novel. Writing a book based on her and her family was the one unique thing I could do to say thank you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mom, today and everyday. Everything you did worked.