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My Late Mother’s Library

My Late Mother’s Library
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In Honor of Mother’s Day!

By Don Portolese

One of the many tender memories I have of my late mother was seeing her poised on the edge of the couch in our living room with one of the many tomes she read every evening. Regardless of the sibling disputes or the gunshots and chaos that erupted from the television, she could read through the apocalypse without being distracted.

The books were so varied, reflecting the breadth of her taste and character. They could be anything from a best seller by Scott Turow, a weighty Steinbeck novel, a medical text, or a detective story by one of her favorites, Robert B. Parker. Her interests were as broad and varied as she, demonstrating a mental dexterity that just doesn’t exist among our TV-addled generations of today.

She did her best to instill that love of the written word in all of her children. I remember how we gathered around her on the couch and listened to the soft tinkling of her voice as she read to us from Winnie-the-Pooh. She gave us nicknames based on Pooh and his friends. She called me Pooh Bear because I was such a dreamy-eyed boy who wandered around lost in thought.

In addition to the stories of Winnie the Pooh, she read the “Three Billie Goats Gruff,” “The Seven Chinese Brothers,” as well as tales from the hauntingly delightful Brothers Grim. She read “The Secret Garden” to us. The trials of the surly Mary Lenox who finds kindness within the walls of a secluded garden really opened our eyes to the power of nature and children. We marveled at how much Mary changed after she had found the key to that garden, the key to her, Colin’s and Mr. Craven’s salvation.

We visited another garden in Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Selfish Giant.” Once again, it was selfishness that was at the root of the problem, a selfishness that kept the garden in perpetual winter.  And, once again, it was children who brought the redemption of the garden and of the embittered and selfish Giant. There was the mysterious child who came but once to his garden. I remember vividly how he had won the Giant’s heart and how angered the Giant was to see he had been hurt. I can still hear my mother dramatically reading the line, “Who hath dared to wound thee?” when the Giant finally found his little friend. Like the Giant, my mother had a garden with many beautiful flowers, and, like him, she believed that “children were the most beautiful flowers of all.”

What I remember most was the warmth that emanated from her as we all gathered around her on the couch. Her warm hands and warm voice could caress the chill out of even the coldest upstate New York winter days. She read those stories almost secretively, as though they were written especially for us.

When we thought ourselves too old to be read to, she continued to instill in us her passion for the written word. She was always willing to share the wisdom she gleaned from her readings. Whether it be a quote from poets like Louis MacNiece or e.e. cummings or a prose passage that rang true to her, she always had some well-turned phrase or book to set free in our hearts and inspire us.

Unfortunately, none of us came to revere the word quite the way she did. I may have come closest, but I was a long time in getting there. I was the restless one who would rather do than read. I had to travel to various corners of the world to experience life firsthand while she sat there on that same spot on the couch with the world at her fingertips, a different and more exotic place for every page she turned.

Over the years, as my appreciation of the written word grew, my mother stepped up her recommendations. I never got around to reading most of them while she was still alive. They were either something that wasn’t quite up my alley or books I would promise to read later. How foolish I was to think her as immortal as the written word, as though she would be around forever to discuss these books with me when I finally got around to reading them.

After she passed, I began to feel guilty for not having read so many of her recommendations. It is out of reverence to her and her cherished memory that I have decided to pick up all of those books she had recommended over the years. I have worked my way through five of them and have many more to go to complete my mission. Yet each book from her library brings me closer to her in so many ways.

As I turn each page I learn more and more about my Mother, for one’s taste in books sheds more than a reading light on one’s personality. Each author or story another facet of her character, a new understanding of her. As I read, I feel her with me and realize that all of her quotes, books and the fond memories of her reading to us will always be here. That is the indelible and wonderful constant of books and mothers; they last as long as the people they touch.

The chapters of a book are just like the ups and downs of our lives. They are full of insightful kernels of wisdom, realizations we come to, as though the author were sharing a well-guarded secret with only us. And in so many ways my mother was like an author to me who imbued me with so much of herself. She had written the earlier versions of my life; she read through and edited the many drafts of my childhood. She gave her gentle encouragement as I began to write things of my own. Now her final draft is written, and I am so many drafts away from whom I truly wish to be.

My mother also taught me the importance of savoring a book, of marking it, of making notes in the margins when we are particularly struck by a certain phrase or passage. As I read the books that she had read before me, I come across her delicate cursive which had caressed and highlighted the passages that really touched her. I am happy to find that so many of those passages touched me as well. As I read, our kindred spirits are in sync and I commune with her as I re-mark each passage and add some notes of my own. And when I finish each book, I think long and hard about it and understand why it was so special to her.

Finishing a book has always been like attending the funeral of a loved one. I feel sad knowing that the world of people and places that I was a part of will never touch me in the same way again. And I’ve now realized that each time that emptiness set in; each time I tearfully contemplated the characters after turning that last page; each time I wished the story would continue, because I either believed it wasn’t finished or didn’t want it to be so, was a rehearsal for her loss. I am still mistily contemplating her final page. There is not a book quite like her that I can pick up in her place. But at least I have the books she left behind. Recommendations that will bring me back to her again and again, revealing so much of the beauty she possessed in the pages of her life and the love of the written word we share.

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