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My Mother's Library

Cover image by Chloe Annetts, design by Dale Voelker.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” James Baldwin

And to this I would add: your joys, your accomplishments, your expectations, your hopes. And I would change the pronoun to “our,” as Charles Blow did in his very personal New York Times blog post today, a touching account of his first encounter with books. It reminded me of my mother’s stories about her childhood library which was immodest for a struggling Viennese family—middle class in its aspirations, but not in its day to day life. Her mother—my grandmother—worked as a sales “girl” in a glove store, family owned, but not immediate family. And her father—my grandfather—was a traveling salesman, selling the gloves to retail stores. And when he returned from his trips, he always brought my mother a beautiful leather-bound book, which she cherished, and read avidly. In absentia, the books gave her courage and comfort when her father was away. And they became a sizable library, all left behind when my mother escaped the Nazi advance after she graduated from medical school, the first woman in her family to go to university.

And it’s interesting that I haven’t written about this in a long time. Perhaps it was Charles Blow’s blog post that jogged memories of my mother’s re-created, re-invented library, first in New York where I grew up, and later in Westport, Ct. after she and my stepfather—in European fashion—retired “to the country.” The bookshelves had to go up before anything else, and if anyone wanted to borrow a book, the librarian—my mother—had to check it out in her indelible mental ledger. As she aged, she became even stricter about lending books, almost obsessively so; they had become a metaphor of both loss and security.

“And you will return it, soon?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And if you do not, I will call you.”
And so on.

The parsimony of lending did not extend to gifts. If she liked a book, she bought copies for her children, grand-children, and friends. And signed them, often with the words: “This is one of my favorite books.”

In her old age, my mother lost most of her sight. She could no longer pull books off the shelf, or read them. But she went to her local Barnes & Noble all the time, and she belonged to a book club. My sister and I tried to shift her to audio books, to no avail. Finally, I found a wonderful man to read to her and talk to her. A book was not a book unless there was a discussion about its characters or the events described.

My mother was bi-lingual, but shifted entirely to English as a reader. Oddly, though, she never liked poetry in English, but when I began to memorize poems, I would practice on her during my visits. These oral/aural experiences echoed the Greeks, who my mother had studied in high school. I was declaiming what was on the page, and this legacy had a mythic feel. She recognized quickly that most poems revise the ancient themes of life and death and love. She was captivated. Soon we were able to touch on her own end of life “issues” and how she wished to depart from this world beyond the documents that had been signed. It was literature that helped us do that.
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