She Who Taught Me to Read

Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 1.38.15 PMHonestly, I’m not sure this is true, that my mother taught me to read. I recall lying belly-down on a thick-piled prickly rug (an Oriental, as Mom used to call them in the days before we knew better), sounding out words in The Little Engine That Could. But the rug in question covers the floor of my father’s library, and it is my father, crunching numbers at the desk above me, who comes to my aid when phonetics fail and I stumble over a word. 

The thing is, “learning to read” involves much more than figuring out a diphthong (“bl” plus “UE” equals blue?!?), or understanding that “th” ends up sounding like whatever it is (“I think I can, I think I can,” said the little blue engine). Learning to read means coming to love the musty smell of an old paperback, the grainy touch of its spine, the voices both lyrical and rational that speak from the pages of any book, even an e-book. Learning to read means finding your proper posture. For my mother, this meant perched with straight back, ankles crossed and feet up, whether tucked, tickly, behind me on the couch or buried under her bedcovers. Learning to read means losing yourself to the story, soaking it in through your pores so deeply that the satisfaction of reaching the conclusion to a well-crafted tale feels not unlike the sensation of discovering someone you’ve long loved from afar loves you back. And when the tale ends, when you must surrender your book’s characters and plot twists and precise lovely language back to its well-thumbed pages, it’s as sweet a sorrow as love lost.

But my father. It’s not that he didn’t read. Daily reading was part of the routine that sustained him. His day at the office complete, the dinner dishes rinsed and racked, he carried his Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta papers to his armchair in our family room and settled in. He read his papers pretty much cover to cover, but he wasn’t much into fiction. At one point in late middle age he became enamored with Ferrol Sams, a Georgia novelist whose most successful book, Run with the Horsemen, told a coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up during the Depression, much as my father did. Other than that, I don’t remember a single fictional title in Dad’s lifetime bibliography. He may have shored me up with the fundamentals, provided the scaffolding for the life in words I would build, but it was my mother who proved true the adage, Children Do What You Do, Not What You Say. Mom read everything, everywhere: den, kitchen, bedroom; trains, planes, automobiles; mountain cabins, hotel rooms, beach.

Yesterday was her birthday, number 101 were she still with us, and with COVID19 running roughshod over our world and everyone in it, I have more time to read. It’s one of the things that helps me stop obsessing (did I wash my hands after touching that banister? Wipe down that counter where my son just scarfed down a sandwich? Did I, did I, did I?) I’m glad, in a way, that my parents aren’t around during these troubled times. My mother, as my sister reminded me this morning, couldn’t abide talking about one’s health, or illness in general (what else is there to talk about now?). And my father lost his mother to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the only other health crisis in modern history to grip the entire planet as ruthlessly as COVID19. Dad always claimed he couldn’t remember his mother’s illness or death. He was only four at the time, but I fear some long-repressed and terrifying images might have resurfaced for him, were he around to try and survive this scourge.

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My grandmother, Frances Bickers Mattingly, circa 1908.

My grandmother Mattingly was a lovely woman, as you can see here. She died, pregnant with her fourth child, at age thirty. Unlike COVID19, the 1918 pandemic killed mostly strong young adults. Though I never knew her, I miss my grandmother somehow, and always have. With all this idle time on my hands, I miss my father, and especially my mother, during this, her birth week. The less we’re occupied, the more strong emotions rise to the surface I suppose. And though it seems wrong, selfish to speak it, I miss getting together with friends. I miss eating out and going to movies and plays and damn it, it’s spring. Of all entertainments, I miss baseball the most.

We–that is those fortunate enough to have so far avoided the virus–have lost something we desperately need: camaraderie, breaks to the routine. But I have what Mom left me, a love of books to help pass the shut-in hours. And I’m most grateful.

 

BOOKS
My current bookshelf

Bookish

Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!
Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!

The Classics
Raggedy Ann, Tom Thumb, Snow White, and Bambi and boom, by the time I was four I’d met with little people, creepy dolls-come-to-life, a mother’s death and a princess.

Babes, Prayers and Kittens
Babes, Prayers and Kittens
My mother wasn’t what you’d call hands-on. When I was a kid, we didn’t spend afternoons together making macaroni necklaces or finger painting. Messy crafts in particular weren’t Mom’s thing (though I do remember a Zoom Loom). Later, I don’t think she ever pulled up a chair to help with homework. And SAT prep? Um, no. As for shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball around the yard? We-e-lll, let’s just say she didn’t have the proper shoes, her thin-soled white Keds notwithstanding.

Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia ... the keys to homemaking success.
Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia … the keys to my mother’s homemaking success.
This is not to say she didn’t care. My mother cared a LOT. In fact, as the last of her six children, I was expected to fulfill her fading parental dreams. She wanted me to be the best damn finger painting-macaroni-necklace-making-zoom-looming basketball star in the state of Georgia, as long as she didn’t have to dribble a ball or risk soiling her blouse. There were exceptions. In matters of fashion, Mom led by example, taking me along to mall, boutique, discount house and fabric store alike. More importantly, she was into books, way into books. Before I could read on my own, she read to me (though not that often by today’s standards). The Little Engine that Could and Grimms do come to mind.

Books old and older.
Books old and older.

Attic reading
Attic reading

More, more, more!
More, more, more!
But mom was a reader herself, a devourer of print, and I became one, too. A case of successful parenting-by-trickle-down, I suppose. Books were omnipresent as I grew up, and my parents’ house remained stuffed full of them right up until the day Mom died. During last spring’s house purge, I saved cleaning them out for last. I didn’t really plan it that way, but I think as long as Mom’s books remained, I could feel her there with me too, her spirit tucked between the pages of everything from James Joyce to John LeCarré. We found books upstairs, downstairs, stacked on shelves, filling up secretaries, piled in tattered boxes under attic eaves, hidden under chairs and tables. There were hardcover and paperback; literary fiction and biographies, mysteries, and spy novels; first editions and worthless mass markets; cookbooks, travel guides, books on architecture and politics, Bibles (one dated 1827, from my Dad’s side of the family), and of course, Catholic How-to Manuals (wouldn’t Pope Francis be proud?). Among these were Birth Control for Catholics (rather brief, that one) and the Catholic’s Guide to Expectant Motherhood. There were so many books that finally, I ran out of time to decide if this one would go to the public library, or that one to Goodwill. Needless to say, lots came home with me. I suppose one day my sons and daughter will be forced to go through them all again, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

A little bit of everything
A little bit of everything

A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser's Faerie Queene among them. Mom's note reads, "Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915."
A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser’s Faerie Queene among them. Mom’s note reads, “Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915.”
I thought of Mom and her books the other day when a post popped up on my Facebook feed noting a drop in ebook sales as compared with print. Too, it seems studies keep showing that folks (even millenials!) like the feel and smell of a physical book. Well, after sorting through thousands of pages, some of them mildew-stained or harboring crumbled insect remains, I have to say I can see why.

And hold on a minute, here comes a memory … I did have finger paints! That smell! Sure, there was a box of them in the back of my closet, right under the Tiddly Winks. Alas, I believe that by the time my friend Diana and I finally dug out the jars and donned our own smocks, the paint had evaporated, leaving behind a crusty, pocked rainbow. But hey, we had books to spare. For a while, we even got into copying them, word for word, into spiral notebooks, though we kept that strange little game to ourselves. Today, Diana and I are both writers. And my sister is a journalist, one brother is an ad man/copy writer, another writes PR and speeches for Coca Cola. Hmm. 

Thanks, Mom. Really.

Mom's books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.
Some of Mom’s books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.

And more in the family room ...
And more in the family room …