Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Mother's Day Post: I Am a Writer Because of My Mother

Mother's Day is a pretty quiet holiday at our house. This year I'll be seeing my own mother in just a week, so I'm saving her gift to give to her in person. I like giving her gifts. As for my own celebration, after Mass and a quick trip to Sam's Club (we're out of cat food), we're going to go to a Mother's Day Brunch. Then we'll go home and I'll ride my horse, and, if I'm lucky, talk the children into doing all the barn chores. I might get a card. Might not. It's a nice day, but I don't hang a lot of expectations onto it: I know it's a difficult day for several people I very deeply love, who have lost their mothers too early, or never quite had them at all, or who longed to be mothers themselves and aren't. I wrote last year about how I'm conscious of the pain that sometimes surrounds Mother's Day. This year I thought I'd write about the biggest gift my own mother gave me:  I am a writer because of my mother.

Now, writers often have a lot of strange characteristics in common: we tend to be introverts, to be prone to depression. Many writers have suffered tragedies. We tend to be the quiet ones at the party, sitting in the corner taking mental notes, and while certain things like an MFA from Iowa or an aunt who works for Random House can help a person become a writer, the truth is that all writers, every single one I have ever met or ever heard about, have one and only one thing in absolute common: we read like crazy. We read constantly, indiscriminately, deeply, fully. We read all the time.

Because of my mother, I grew up in a house full of books.

I'd like to mention that my father is also a prodigious reader. Every evening of my childhood he read his way through two local daily newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, and a stack of magazines. At our house we subscribed to Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Golf Somethingorother, Good Housekeeping, and a whole bunch more, and whenever he ran out of reading material my Dad wandered down to the local bookstore and picked up People Magazine. My mother, though, was the one who read. Not that I noticed it. With a child's blinkers I assumed that the life I lived was mostly the same as everyone else's, and therefore, my mother didn't read more than normal. She was my norm.

When I was small it was the stack of picture books by the black-and-white rocking chair. The Little Golden Books she bought me every week at the supermarket.  The beautiful books that were gifts on Christmas and my birthday. The trips by bicycle--my blue bike with the training wheels, my brother perched in the carrier on Mom's bike's back wheel--to the Tecumseh Branch Library, which was, miracle of miracles, air-conditioned, and in the summer felt like a cool, inviting cave. Riding bikes to the library was fun but it limited our checkout to what would fit in our bike baskets.

A few years later we moved, and rejoiced in the larger (but still air-conditioned) Georgetown Branch Library. We drove there in my mom's car now. The library let each card-holder check out 8 books at any one time. I would browse the stacks, running my finger over the spines, pulling books out as I went. When my pile grew heavy I'd stop to count. Nine books. Or ten. Or, horrors, a dozen. I'd look at my treasures in dismay, completely unable to give any up. So I'd slope off to the adult section, where often as not my mother would be pausing to count the stack of books in her own arms.

Can I check some out on your card? I'd ask. No, she'd say, I have too many too. So we'd go pester my brother into taking some of our extra books.

Every week. We almost never had overdue fines. I read and reread and it was simply normal. I think I was twenty-six years old before it occurred to me that my mother loved to read. I remember my husband laughing in surprise. "Your mother reads all the time," he said.

Well, yes. I knew that. But didn't almost everyone?

Turns out, probably not. It also turns out that being raised by someone who didn't question how many books I brought on a family vacation*, or how much time I spent with my nose in a novel on the living room couch, or whether I read in bed past my bedtime, was exactly right for me. I never had to fight to be a reader; years later I had the background to fight to be a writer.

When my mom comes to visit now, she often makes herself comfortable on my couch with the loose pages of my newest manuscript. She reads with absorption. "Oh," she says at the end, "I think this is your best so far."

Thank you, Mom. For everything, but especially the books.

*or the time when, in frustration when we were on a ski vacation, I went to the Telluride town library, applied for a library card, and checked out a big stack.