My Mother’s Books
I’m lousy at New Year’s resolutions. The only things I can manage are small, concrete goals—anything too big, and my stay-with-it-ness dries up quickly. My most successful resolution to date has been the year I vowed to make my bed every morning. In light of the bazillion possibilities that are out there when it comes to personal betterment, I recognize that making my bed isn’t particularly impressive, which explains why I’m sheepish to admit that I’ve made a New Year’s resolution for 2014, and it’s a doozy.
I’ve resolved to read my mother’s books.
Maybe this requires some explanation… If you’ve been reading along on the Literary Duck blog for a while now, you’ve no doubt figured out that I was raised by a single father. In a nutshell—sparing you the sordid details—my parents had an ugly divorce when I was three, and my mother left for good when I was six. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw her in the next fifteen years. While I was growing up with my Papa in a trailer in Deadwood, Oregon, she was finishing college, moving across the country and launching a successful career in arts administration. She never paid a dime of child support, never shared a holiday with me, seldom wrote letters or called. Months would go by—once, an entire year—without a word from my mother. Needless to say, everything I knew about her came from vague memories from the first five years of my life and the stories Papa told me about happier times: about their courting days or the day I was born, etc.
I only came to actually know my mother years later, when I was already in my thirties, and she was on the verge of retiring. By that time, she had become the Director of the Arts for the state of New Mexico. She’d had two more marriages, and had finally settled in with husband number five. She’d travelled extensively. She’d made a lot of money. And now, late in life, she was also guilt-wracked about the child she’d abandoned three decades earlier. In other words, she had become someone entirely different than the woman who gave birth to me. In essence, getting to know my mother at that point in our lives was akin to meeting a stranger with whom you discover you have something in common.
Which brings me back to this business of New Year’s resolutions.
I made my peace with my mother in the last decade of her life. But in between those vague earliest memories of her that I carry around in my head, and the experiences I had with her in her last years, I have a blank. What was she like? What made her happy? What aching desires did she have? What passions carried her away from me and into a whole new world? What inspired her? Who was this woman?
I have no means of finding out. No one who knew her then is still around.
This past November, my husband and I flew down to New Mexico to visit my stepfather (the aforementioned husband number five), who is quite elderly now, and I realized that he has left my mother’s office essentially untouched since her death. This was her inner sanctum in her last years. Appropriately enough, a big, framed art-poster of Georgia O’Keeffe on a motorcycle holds a position of prominence in the room—it’s titled “Women Who Rode Away.”
There is also a small bookshelf. Unlike the books she kept by her bed—those being health books, primarily—the little bookshelf in my mother’s office holds trinkets, letters and photos that were apparently special to her, and also two dozen mass-market paperbacks. The interesting thing to me about these books, is that every single one of them (with one notable exception) was published in the 1960’s or early ‘70’s. These were the books she was reading when I was young, both before and after she left: when she was in college and later when she was working for the Oregon Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Something about these titles made her save them for nearly half a century, carting them around with her from one side of the country to the other and back again. Something about them mattered to her in some way that made her tuck them onto a little bookshelf in one of her favorite rooms, alongside a variety of things that were precious to her. It occurred to me that there might be some clues about my mother in those pages.
So, I’ve made a resolution to read my mother’s books. My stepfather let me take eight titles home with me:
- Short Story Masterpieces: The Bestselling Collection of Our Time, published in 1954—Hemingway, Joyce, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Salinger, Thurber, etc.
- Six Great Modern Short Novels, published in 1954—my mother apparently bought this book used for .48. More Faulkner, Joyce, Melville, Gogol, etc.
- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, published in 1962.
- 3 By Flannery O’Connor, First Edition, published in 1964.
- The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy—although originally published in 1955, my mother’s copy was a 1965 reprint.
- Seven Russian Short Story Novels, published in 1967.
- The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols, published in 1974.
- East of the Mountains by David Guterson, published in 1999—I took this one because it was the only book on the shelf that was published after the 1970’s.
The only deduction of interest that I’ve made so far, just by looking at the titles, is in regard to The Ginger Man. This post-WWII sex-capade was banned in the United States in the 1950’s, for obscenity. Although now it’s considered to be quite a fine example of modern 20th Century writing, this means that somewhere around the time of my birth or soon thereafter, my mother was reading a banned sex book… and then kept it for nearly fifty years.
As tempted as I am to start with The Ginger Man, I’m going to begin with The Milagro Beanfield War, because my mother’s parents were migrant farmers during the Great Depression—she grew up in laborers shacks in her early years—and I wonder if that is why she was so drawn to this title. It seems appropriate to begin with a world she was born into.