The books she never read

It is an odd phenomenon of our modern world that our online lives continue after our earthly lives have ended. Our digital footprints cross more virtual space than our real feet could wish to cover.

I’ve been thinking of this only because I ran into an online ghost recently on Goodreads.com. (An aside: if you’re a reader and you don’t know or use Goodreads, check it out. It lets you track the books you’ve read and find recommendations. You can connect to friends of the real or virtual kind, follow authors, and share reviews and suggestions. I’m not into online socializing; for me, Goodreads is a tool to remember what books I’ve read and what I want to read. More than once, it has saved me from the paralysis I sometimes feel in a bookstore or library, and instead sent me confidently towards the right shelf.)

After adding something to my want-to-read list, I started browsing the long list of titles I’ve already read. I clicked on a Jane Austen book, of which I had only the vaguest memory, and I saw, below my four-star rating of the work, that someone I followed on Goodreads had also read the book. My mom. Who died in August, 2014.

I clicked into her profile. She had joined Goodreads in late 2012 and literally all of her activity on the site had happened on one single day, December 1. On that day she input and rated over 80 books. I suspect she never went back to the site; no additional books had been added, though I’m certain she kept reading up until her death. My friend request to her remains, forever, unanswered.


Few things in my adult life made me happier than when my mother – an exceptionally smart and well-educated woman who was a teacher for decades – finally started reading real books.

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“Can-hider”??

For reasons I never understood as a child, and only vaguely understand now, my mother read trash for years. Years. Hers was a steady diet of Harlequin Romance. If you’re not familiar with Harlequin, their website describes their books as “uplifting escapes featuring real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men.” Most of the books feature these same “relatable” and “desirable” people on the cover in various states of undress. And by chapter seven (it was always chapter seven), all the clothes came off and the prose turned purple, or sometimes blue.

I might not have been too bothered by my mother’s enjoyment of these books, except she was always asking me to get some for her when I went to the library. She never cared if she had already read them; she knew they were essentially all the same. “Just pick out some with good covers”, she would tell me. My pre-teen or teen self would blush with shame as I put those worn paperbacks on the top of my pile of young-adult novels or research books.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when my mom joined a book club a few years before she retired. Suddenly she was asking what I was reading and sharing recommendations of books she enjoyed. Like most book clubs, I think hers was light on the actual book discussion and heavy on the chatting and wine tasting, but I loved that her involvement in it gave us something else to talk about together, and another way to connect.

When I found her Goodreads profile a few weeks ago, I was struck by the overlap between the books she had read and those on my list. I remembered which she had suggested to me. I can see where our tastes come together (Austin again, Ann Patchett) and where they diverge (Chris Cleve, Chris Bohjalian). She was generous with her five-star ratings, where I reserve those only for mind-blowing books I cannot live without.

Then I saw that my mom had marked several books as want-to-read. And my immediate thought was that she will never get to read them. My next thought was: I will.

There were eight in total, but two had ratings indicating that they may have been read, so that left me with just six. (It occurs to me now that it’s possible my mom actually read all of them and just never went back to Goodreads to change the labels. Which perhaps makes my little project even more pointless. But isn’t much of what we do for those we have lost pointless, really? So, ever onward.)

There’s nothing extraordinary about any of the books. The list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, old and new. There’s nothing there I’ve been desperate to read, but neither will any be a struggle. The titles don’t give me some new insight into my mother. I don’t think there is any message from the great beyond waiting for me at the end of these six books. I doubt there’s a lesson to be learned or a revelation coming. I’ll mark the books as read and then cross them off both of our to-do lists. But while I’m reading, the conversation between me and my mom continues.


This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States, a day that can be complicated regardless of the status of your particular mother-child relationship. So I’m going to offer a suggestion, borrowed from the great Mr. Fred Rogers, that we all spend 10 seconds on Mother’s Day thinking “of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” I’ll watch the time.

 

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Will the circle be unbroken?

Back in early March, shortly after I revived this blog, I wrote something called, “Why now, and why here (Part 1)”. I talked about why I chose Amsterdam for this adventure of ours. I spoke about the connection I’ve long felt with the Dutch, and the reasons, both practical and silly, that brought me here. That covered the “why here”. As for the “why now”, I sort of cryptically deflected it for another time.

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Wedding day, May 2004

What I was skirting around was having to connect our move to the death of my mother on August 5, 2014. Maybe I wasn’t ready to make the connection, or to talk about it in a public space. To be fair, one didn’t directly lead to the other. I had been talking about moving abroad for some time, and my mother was supportive and excited for us, encouraging us to make our plans regardless of her health.

They say that you’re not supposed to make any big life decisions in the year after a significant loss. Well, I blew that one. Instead of following the common wisdom, I took off, alone at first, to a place where I had no community, no support. I also had no triggers; my mother had never been here and there was little to remind me of her.

Maybe I was trying to outrun my grief. Maybe, in the face of loss and the regret that inevitably comes with it, I felt a greater urgency to do something that I had always dreamed of doing – no time to waste. I’ll admit I haven’t really given it much thought. There’s time to figure it out, if I’m so inclined: “grief is real and loss is for life, as long as life. In any case, I’m not sure it matters.

What follows is a bit of patchwork (an analogy my mom would have appreciated) written inconsistently over the past year. Although I’ve tried to piece it together in a way that might make sense, it is, like all handmade things, imperfect.

I’m sending this out, with great love and childish hope, to my mom and all those we love but no longer see.


On the day my mom died, a friend who had recently lost her mother sent me an email. In it, she shared a quote from an essay that Laurie Anderson wrote for Rolling Stone about the death of Lou Reed, her partner of more than 20 years. It said simply, “I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

(I think it’s important to point out here that my mother wouldn’t have had the slightest idea who Lou Reed was, to say nothing of Laurie Anderson. Her musical tastes ran more to Lionel Ritchie and the Bee-Gees. But hey, nobody’s perfect.)

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

This single sentence from Anderson’s beautiful reflection was like a life buoy thrown to me just as the sea was rising. My mom had been sick for a long time, and as her health declined we had the frank, tearful conversations that I imagine most families have in these situations. Still, the knowledge of her illness and her worsening condition remained abstract, almost up to the very moment of her death. How can we ever prepare ourselves for such loss?

There are parts of that day and the days that followed that have blurred. Even in grief – perhaps especially in grief – our brains find ways of protecting us from ourselves. Other parts of the day are crystal-clear; I could close my eyes right now and reconstruct every sensation, if not for the fact that it still hurts so much to do it.

What I both remember and find comfort in reliving is the outpouring of support that my mom’s death inspired. One after the other, friends, neighbors, former students, quilters, and teachers shared memories. Remarkably, almost everyone remembered the first time they met my mother. There was story after story of her suggesting that someone join a parent’s group, or take a sewing class, or contribute to a gift for a retiring teacher. Stories of invitation, of welcome, of encouraging someone to do more than they thought they could.

Of course, what she was really doing was inviting people into the circle of her love.

Life inside that circle was remarkable. My mom was generous with her time and her attention. She knew how to listen. She was creative and artistic. Affectionate. Curious. She was a loyal friend who would go well out of her way for others. She did not give up on people. She sacrificed – or at least delayed – her own ambitions in order to care for her family.

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The Budapest stop of our European adventure, October 2012

This is not to say that life inside the circle was always easy. While the circle of love may not have had conditions, it did have – how shall we say? – standards.  There was a way that things were to be done, and this was non-negotiable. My mother had high expectations for those around her. To do a poor job on a school assignment, for example, would be disrespectful to ourselves and to the teacher who assigned the work. Whether it was homework or household chores, there was no greater sin inside the circle than doing a “half-assed job”.

And the flip side of my mother’s fierce loyalty was that she could hold a grudge like no other. I suspect she went to her grave still angry at my high-school boyfriend for breaking up with me. In 1993.

I’ll pause here to say that trying to explain the heart of who my mother was in a few paragraphs is a fool’s errand – the ultimate half-assed job. If you knew her, you’ll know that nothing I can say will properly capture her. Edna St. Vincent Millay gets it right in her poem Dirge Without Music:

“A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the

love,—

They are gone.”

I’m not sure that there is a purpose to death at all, but I’m willing to entertain the thought that the purpose is, perhaps, the release of love. And I’ll consider it only because in the days following my mother’s death, I felt held and lifted and comforted by the love that came back from the circle she had created over so many years. My mother had stepped out of the circle. And so we all had to move that much closer to each other. And it was her love that allowed us do it.


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God, my mom would have hated this picture. I love it. Unknown location and date.

In a wonderfully honest new book of essays, Meghan Daum writes, “Most of us have unconscious disbeliefs about our lives, facts that we accept at face value but that still cause us to gasp just a little when they pass through our minds at certain angles.” The first thing on her list is the same as mine: that my mother is dead. A year has passed and this fact seems no more believable today than it did on the day of her death. My most common thought in the first few days of her absence was a befuddled, “…but she was just right here…”. As one might remark about a missing set of house keys.

That thought has by now largely passed, but I’m not sure what’s taken its place. I can say that everything about this year has been surprising. Nothing is linear. Progression is followed by regression. The fact that I moved to Europe a mere six months after my mother’s death has no doubt made the grieving process more complicated. In the early weeks after my arrival, loneliness was common. I was fine for long stretches, then found myself ambushed by grief, unable to share or manage it.

I was – am? – vulnerable in ways I could not have anticipated. And what you cannot anticipate or imagine, you cannot defend against. I have done things that are selfish and thoughtless and inexcusable, even when viewed through a generous lens of grief. I’ve had moments where I was unrecognizable to myself. And while some of those moments are shameful to me, and hurtful to others, I honestly don’t think I could have expected my heart to have protected me, broken as it was.

And the love that I want to believe was released in that hospital room? The love that closed around those of us left in the ragged circle in the days after my mom’s death? What of that? What happens to it in the months – years? – after its release? Will it become harder to call to mind, harder to feel? Does it become diffuse, stretching to reach everyone as they need it, each in their turn? Or can it continue to grow, to expand, both for and through those my mother loved, and who loved her? Could it be that it is endless? Could it be so?