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Between the Lines

14 Oct

I am so happy to be back to blogging. It’s not that I didn’t think about my mom in the last 2 months- my constant connection to her is certainly intact.

While on hiatus and while catching up on some reading, I was inspired and couldn’t wait to write this post. I’m sure we all notice that mothers are often a focal point of books and articles. But, what struck me, is a deep and thoughtful commentary on a mother’s influence and relationships in Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard of this Pulitzer Prize finalist and neither had I. I did not choose this to read this book on my own– a colleague suggested it for our high school’s first Student/Staff Book Club. I felt lucky to be engaged with the protagonist, soon-to-be motherless daughter, Ava. I was surprised and affected by the mother/daughter thread throughout the novel. While each book club member found parts of the novel engaging, no one expressed the connection that I found. Each time I picked up the book I looked forward to Ava’s reminiscence and her ongoing relationship with her deceased mother.

As soon as her mother, Hilola is diagnosed with cancer, it is apparent that her demise will have a huge impact on the family and their alligator theme park business. While the business does crumble after her death, Ava remains strong, partially powered by her mother’s strength and presence. Often as I read, I wanted to reach out and hug Ava for verbalizing my feelings, exactly.

Her view of dealing with her mom’s death should be highlighted in a self-help book for mourners. Why do we sometimes avoid talking about our loved one’s death? When Ava needed to “explain to him about mom’s death which was always hard to do. It felt like killing her again.” Exactly. Talking about the details brings back the harsh reality that no one should have to endure once, let alone again and again.

When I started writing this blog, it was because I felt, like Ava, that my mom “was everywhere and nowhere.” She continues to influence me.

When Ava’s brother, Kiwi, hears tourists remember his mom’s acts, “he wanted to passionately kiss them.” I know that feeling. I LOVE talking with anyone who remembers my mom. We don’t have to talk about her, just the fact that this person knew her enough to say her name.  Attending events like my neighborhood swim club’s reunion party and my own high school reunion, for me, is partially fueled by knowing I will mingle with people who knew my parents. During these gatherings, they probably have no idea how meaningful it is for them to acknowledge my mom or dad. Sometimes, I tell them. Like Kiwi, I feel like “her name in a stranger’s mouth was a resurrection.” Well, I don’t have the experience with strangers, but the feeling is the same.

Ava remembers her mom as “stern and all-seeing” as moms should be. She recalls that her mom “would do this great favor of pretending to be credulous when we faked sick. Mom cooed sincerely over our theatrical moanings and coughs.” My mom didn’t coo, but she did sometimes fall for the “I’m too sick to go to school” drill. Ava reinforces the notion that my mom, like hers, was usually aware of my actual condition.

Ava often hears her mother’s voice in her head. I hear my mom’s too and, like Ava, I’m grateful I do. But, for Ava it was even more than a voice. Ava is struggling and almost drowning in the ocean when “I met my mother there, in the final moment. Not her ghost but some vaster portion of her…. Her courage. I believe that she was the pulse and bloom that forced me toward the surface. She was the water that eased the clothes from my fingers. She was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs.”

How beautiful.

Finally, at the end of the story, when the family is reunited and is headed towards healing, Ava feels relieved that “all of us, the four of us—the five of us if you counted Mom inside us- we were home.” And, that’s just the point. My mom is still here, inside of me, each and every moment. I am fortunate, like Ava, to have had a mom who mattered.


What book will you read next?

15 Jan

I wish I knew what books my mom read —or if she read books. Actually I know she read Antiques Guides, but that was work and hobby-related. And, she read newspapers and magazines. But, I do not remember her reading books for fun.

This query came about recently when a student in the high school where I work asked me what my favorite books are. As a librarian, I am often asked for book suggestions. Requests range from, “Do you have any books by this author?” to “I have to read a biography for class, would you show me some?” Often, during this process I describe books I have read or wish to read. For some reason, this particular student’s request struck me. It might have been the way she asked or her smile, both of which suggested sincerity and seriousness. For a moment I was moved out of my usual librarian way of thinking (asking what she likes to read, trying to get a sense of her taste) and entered into a casual discussion of books. I felt flattered and was eager to share. She had already read my all-time favorite, Jane Eyre, a few times. Not only did she read my favorite modern novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, a dozen times, she even read the autobiography of Mineko Iwasak, the retired geisha who inspired the author. I added that to my list. Soon our discussion was not about my favorites, but about our favorites. We gave each other ideas of what to read next.

Now that my own children are high school students, I often feel like a mother to the students I work with. They come into the library with voracious appetites for fiction. I marvel at how they read so much when encumbered with heavy homework. And, often students who might wear the label, “not interested in school” borrow books as if addicted to reading.  I appease my envy of their reading lists by imagining that their days are longer than 24 hours! Sometimes I joke that they must be renting the books out to other people, they can’t possibly read so many! Once, one of the students admitted that she borrows some of the books for her mom. For a second I thought about how she was taking books away from reading-obsessed students, but I was impressed with her desire to enable her mom’s reading passion.

All of this makes me wonder if my mom missed out on reading for fun or if she was typical of her generation? I know that my friends share books with their moms now. They’ll tell me, “Oh, my mom just finished that one and loved it.” Did their moms habitually read fiction 25 years ago? I often credit Oprah’s Book Club with adding to our society’s obsession with books. Does it follow then that my mom’s generation has more recently become enamored with fiction?

My son and I are now each reading the same book and we often have engaging discussions about books. My daughter and I also share a passion for books. Interestingly, she has a Jane Eyre –ish favorite, its prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea. But that makes sense, their mom is a librarian! When my mom was sick she read self-help books including, Harold Kushner’s Why Bad Things Happen to Good People and Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine and Miracles. Assuming pleasure-reading just was not her thing then, I wish my mom could have experienced my passion and maybe even joined me in having a favorite book.