My mother worried continuously over my lack of friends and my weight. I loved to read, and I was content to lay on the cot in our basement every day after school and all through the summers with a bag of forbidden chocolate at my side, reading my parents’ collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and whatever else I could find on our shelves. While my mother wished I were less in love with chocolate and would have loved to see me pursuing more physical-fitness oriented activities, she thoroughly understood my love of books. We always shared that passion, and it was a good one to have in common.
Books saved my life; at least, they saved my sanity. They had the power to lift me completely up and out of the world I was wedged into so physically, and they filled my mind with other peoples’ adventures and sorrows and loves, coloring in the sketched-in lines of my own. My first rescue through books came in the summer before fourth grade when my grandmother, whom we called Mommy Mayme, stayed with us after her failed eye surgery. We shared a room, she in one twin bed and I in the other. Mommy Mayme snored like a steam engine, and I would lie awake all night long, unable to sleep next to such impressive noise. As I would watch the pink sky creeping toward my bedroom window, I would listen to the radio I kept under my pillow, and some nights by the time that pink was advancing, I had heard “Hurdy Gurdy Man” seven or eight times.
One night as I lay in bed listening to Donovan sing and my grandmother snore, I risked turning on a light. Mommy Mayme didn’t stir when the light clicked on, and I was off to the races. I started reading the first book in a series my sister owned called Honey Bunch.
They were awful books: syrupy sweet, with a perfect little girl named Honey Bunch who did no wrong and loved everyone. I read two a night, until they were gone. Then I read Cherry Ames: Student Nurse, but there were only two of those on the shelf. I moved on to the Bobbsey Twins. They were less tooth-achingly sweet than Honey Bunch, and the Twins had a funny Aunt who was deaf and heard everything incorrectly, but really the Bobbsey Twins were just a warm-up act for Nancy Drew.
I loved Nancy Drew, and when I found her books, I couldn’t wait to finish one so that I could move onto the next. Although Nancy must have had some sad times—she was sixteen years old, and her mother had been dead for years—you would never know it. She had a doting father, Carson Drew, a housekeeper who clucked over her regularly, her own Roadster, and two best friends, George and Bess. She even had a boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. Trouble always found Nancy, but she prevailed in the end, and she didn’t need parents or a boyfriend to do it. Nancy was smart and independent and I loved her.
Whenever I found a book that I adored, I read it over and over again, savoring it differently each time. I studied every moment of city-girl Betsy’s life with her farm relatives in Understood Betsy, I wished I had a baby sister like Phronsie in The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew; I recoiled in horror when Jo married Professor Baer in Little Women. When I read Mrs. Mike, I fell completely in love with Mike Flanagan but also with Katherine Mary O’Fallon; I fell in love with their love and with their marriage, and when their babies, Ralph and Mary Aroon, died, I was devastated. I more or less memorized Mrs. Mike, and to this day I recall its images and anecdotes at various moments in my own life. No book quite took over my life, however, the way that Heidi did.
I found Heidi in a box in Anne Fischer’s basement. Anne was my mother’s best friend from childhood, and like my mother, she also loved to read. There were boxes and boxes of books in Anne’s basement and whenever we visited, she would tell me that I could take home any books I wanted, which was my version of heaven. When I found Heidi, I took it home and read it straight through. I fell in love with Heidi and with her grandfather. Heidi’s life was so difficult that it made my problems seem like nothing, and she never let her difficulties destroy her. I wanted to be in Heidi’s world, which is odd, since Heidi’s world included being abandoned to live with her grandfather, a very grouchy and distant old man, sleeping in a hut on a desolate mountain with this old man, building a loving connection with that same man through pure resilience and good humor only to be taken away without notice to serve as a companion to a rich crippled girl named Klara whose housekeeper despised Heidi…THIS was the world I wanted to leave my world for? Yes.
For most of a summer, I pretended I was Heidi without telling anyone I was doing so. I pretended my twin bed was a pile of hay in a loft, like Heidi’s was, “climbing” into bed each night from my rocking chair; I scrubbed my face each morning just as Heidi did each morning at the well; I ate applesauce whenever possible at meals because it most closely resembled the “mush” that Heidi and her grandfather ate every night. I think what affected me so powerfully was the fact that Heidi’s life was as bleak as it gets, but she never let it change her. She changed her world, instead, with a steady hope that things would get better and that if she loved people, they would become loveable.
Another book I found in Anne Fischer’s basement was Marjorie Morningstar. A hefty book, it took me weeks to get through it, and several pounds of chocolate malted milk balls. I was enraptured. Marjorie was a teenager in New York City during the 1940’s who wanted to escape her nearly certain fate of getting married and moving to the suburbs. She wanted to be an actress, and she was determined to make it happen. I didn’t realize until many years later that Marjorie had not actually been all that talented, that her own dreams of being an actress and an unconventional woman had been risible given her clear status as a typical Jewish girl of her time.
In eighth grade, I read Gone With the Wind. The book took over my life for a solid month. I would sit through classes all morning, and as soon as the bell rang for lunch, I would run home to eat my sandwich and read for twenty minutes before running back to school before recess ended. Then would begin the long wait for the last bell of the day, and the dash home to get into my comfortable clothes, grab the book and head to the basement, snacks in hand. I didn’t get much homework done, and the homework I did turn in that month was not very good. I was doing nothing to improve my solid “D” average in science and math; my reading and spelling scores were good because I didn’t have to study them to excel. Even my reading grade plummeted, though, when I had to turn in an art project about a book I had read. My task was to create a diorama about a book I had enjoyed and, lacking any artistic talent whatsoever, I dressed my Barbie doll in her best dress, put her in a box, and said she was Scarlett O’Hara. I got a D. The diorama next to mine was created by Dianne, a girl I had never seen read an entire book in her life, and she had a scene from Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, with a pond made from a mirror and realistic looking snow. She got an A.
When I was in eighth grade, Reading Class (now called “Language Arts” for some reason) involved everyone in the class reading the same book and then doing a great deal of non-reading activity about it. One of the assigned books was The Light in the Forest. It wasn’t a long book, but it took up huge amounts of time because most classes were not about the actual book; they were about things that had some remote connection to the book. So, for example, if the book mentioned someone eating applesauce, the class would make applesauce. If the book mentioned a shoemaker, the class would be subjected to a lesson on making shoes. It was Reading Class For People Who Hate to Read. Thankfully, there was a different group for “Advanced Readers.” The Advanced Readers were allowed to read anything we wanted to read, at whatever speed worked for us. The only requirement was that once a week, each Advanced Reader had to prepare a selection of one hundred words from her book of the week. The idea was to read our chosen passage out loud and then tell Sr. Lydia why the book was wonderful and what we learned from it. These “Advanced Reader” conferences took place while the other students made applesauce or colored pictures of shoes. After reading her “one hundred words,” the student would explain to Sr. Lydia why she chose those particular words and how they best represented what the book meant to her. The idea was that each Advanced Reader would read about one book a week; I easily read more than that, as reading was my favorite thing to do in the world, other than eating, which I could do while I read, thus combining two favorite activities in one experience, a win-win for me.
One particular Friday, I hadn’t yet read Sr. Lydia the “one hundred words” from my book of choice. I had probably read several books that week, but the only book I had with me that day was a book I had barely started. My mother was always happy to buy me a book if she saw one that looked interesting. Just that week, she had seen a book at the Marshall Field’s Book Store that she thought I might like, and brought it home for me. I had started the book, and liked it fine. So I just grabbed that book and went up to Sr. Lydia’s desk to read my “specially selected” one hundred words. Opening the book at random, I started reading, only to realize quickly that I had accidentally opened the book to a sex scene. My mother had not vetted the book, and I had not yet gotten to that page. When I got to the words, “They were closer than close,” I abruptly stopped reading. Sr. Lydia said, “Go on, dear.” Flushed, ashamed and sheepish, I miserably finished reading. I have no idea what I said in response to Sr. Lydia’s question, “Now why did you choose precisely those pages to read to me, dear?” I have blotted that memory out completely.
My mother believed that reading was the most important talent and the best hobby there was. She was thrilled that I loved to read, and had a very lassez-faire attitude toward my selections. One time in the gift shop of Chicago’s Union Station, I wanted to buy a book called Coffee, Tea or Me? for the train ride to Milwaukee from Chicago. My mother was a bit dubious given the somewhat racy-looking cover, and asked me what it was about. “The airline industry,” I said. “You know, how hard it is to be a stewardess or a pilot.” Reassured, she gave me the money to buy the book, and I read it happily all the way home.
I didn’t finish the entire book on the train, but I was very eager to pick it up the following day; the book was about the job of being a stewardess all right, but it was racy in the extreme and I was enjoying it wildly. I would not be using it for my “one hundred words” presentation to Sr. Lydia. I couldn’t find the book anywhere the next day, and when I went to ask my mother where it was, she informed me that my brother Jamie had ratted me out. He had told my mother that Coffee, Tea or Me was a “sex book,” and told her to open the book at random and read anything. She did so, and apparently learned some things even she, a mother with five children, didn’t know. That was the end of Coffee, Tea or Me for me, at least until a few weeks later when I finally found it on my mother’s closet shelf and finished it on the sly. She hadn’t kept the book to read it herself. My mother had very good taste in books. She just couldn’t bear to throw away a book, any book, and she certainly couldn’t give it away to anyone and be an Occasion of Sin.
The only other time I can remember my mother taking a book away from me and hiding it on her closet shelf was the summer of eighth grade, when I had a dermoid cyst removed from my ovary. That surgery was a major deal, and I was in the hospital for over a week, much of it spent hooked up to tubes and in a great deal of pain. My sister Marbeth’s best friend Jolie gave me a copy of the brand new book Our Bodies, Ourselves. I had been in no shape to look through it while I was in the hospital, but I certainly looked forward to perusing it once I got home. One day while she was visiting me, however, my mother started paging through the book while I was napping. I awoke to a very irate mother, who had some rather unfavorable things to say about Jolie. “Who would give such a book to a twelve year old girl?” was, I believe, among them. “The first page I opened to had a picture of two women. Dancing. With each other. And they were both in the nude!” Our Bodies, Ourselves went home that day under my mother’s arm, and in order to read it weeks later, I had to find it on her closet shelf.
Finding and finishing the books my mother had put away for a later date—or forever—assured me that there was such a thing as a bad book, and that my mother actually knew what a good book was. I am still grateful for my mother’s love of books and her encouragement of my own love of books. We often clashed over food issues, and my mother was often distracted from my day-to-day life because of all the other demands on her attention—a sick mother, a troubled sister, teenaged children, an alcoholic husband—but we always had books in common, and that bond sustained us until the end of her life.
When my mother was eighty-one years old, she discovered that she had terminal cancer, and when she went into hospice, we developed a practice of reading together every night before bed. For her birthday that same month , she had received as gifts a book about the Civil War from her grandson and The Secret Garden from her granddaughter. While I stayed with her in hospice, we developed a practice of reading both books at night before we went to sleep. Alternating between the two books, I would read aloud until she fell asleep. My mother died before we finished either book, but I was so grateful that we shared our love of books to the very end.