I doubt she had time to read when she was in her prime. Fulfilling the duties of a 50’s housewife and raising four children occupied most moments of the day. My mother had occasional help with the cleaning, but for the most part she cooked the meals, ironed the clothes, managed the household and found time to be a Scout Den Mother for my little brother and an Assistant Girl Scout leader for me. Her one indulgence back in the day was watching her noontime soaps – Search for Tomorrow and The Guiding Light – for fifteen minutes each when we walked back to school after lunch.
She passed on her love of family (holidays were always spent with relatives) and her love of music (we often gathered around the piano and sang as she played), both of which sound either quaint or archaic depending on your perspective. Frankly, looking back, both adjectives are apropos for me.
But the years took their toll and by the time she was in her early fifties, Rheumatoid Arthritis had changed her life. Gold shots to relieve pain were soon proven destructive. Paraffin treatments for distorted fingers offered temporary relief, but no help with day to day activities.
Opening a jar of olives proved an impossible task. (To this day, I don’t tighten a jar lid.) Pouring a glass of milk had to wait until my father came home from work. (Even the quart size container was too heavy to lift.)
The children she raised had all moved on with their lives to other parts of the world and long distant phone calls, because of cost, were a weekend treat. Her days on the sofa were interrupted by my father at noon, home from work to make a light lunch for the two of them, and then again at the end of his workday. They watched a little TV in the evening ending with the 11 o’clock News and a light snack before bed.
How did my mother survive the next nine years? She read. She arranged a pillow to prop up her latest novel so that the weight of the book did not require her strength. She could still turn the pages and when the weekend phone calls came around, she discussed all kinds of adventures and intriguing situations with us that occurred outside of the confines of her living room.
One of her greatest legacies passed on to her four children was the love of reading. My siblings and I often marvel that we came from the same parents because we are so different; our choices of lifestyle, career, religion (or none), certainly life partners. But even with those differences most of our phone calls today include the question, “So, what are you reading now?” somewhere in the conversation.
Because of this inherited love of reading, I was taken a back at a recent meeting I attended of art advocates. They are a convivial group of twenty plus from around the state who meet four times a year to discuss and promote the arts. As an introductory exercise, we were asked to give our name and the latest book we were reading.
I was sixth or seventh. Prior to me, several offered that they “read reports” or “business papers.” I mentioned that I always read several books at a time and most recently was reading “The Nickel Boys.”
As the exercise progressed around the table it became apparent that almost no one on this dais of artists was reading anything other than work papers. Finally, one woman mentioned she had picked up a book in the airport about an architect and his lovers, which brought a moment of levity.
Last person to participate said she also read several books at a time, the most recent being James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Before even being acknowledged by the chair I turned on my microphone and said, I hope with humor, not judgment. “Two things distress me. One, that no one even felt the need to lie about reading something! And two, I had no idea how this could be!”
Imagine if the question at the table had been, “Name your favorite painting.” I am certain each person would not have hesitated naming one work but would probably try to expound on their list. Now imagine that as a literary artist (as opposed to a visual one), that I had said, “Oh, I don’t look at art, except if it’s a book cover or something to do with business.”
Looking back on the meeting, I obviously feel compelled to write my reactions. I’m sad that these artists, whom I respect and admire, have become so busy that the world of words has passed them by. I’d like to say my opinion of the group in general hasn’t changed, but I must admit, I’m struggling with a commonality.
What I am grateful for is having a mother who was challenged in life and made the most of her time by not only reading but sharing her love of the written world.
I can’t imagine life without reading.