Wednesday, April 24, 2013

You are what your mother read

When I was up in New England, I stopped by the storage locker I still have that holds stuff from my parents' house in Massachusetts. A beautiful dining room table. The bed I grew up in. (I mean, they let me out of it in the daytime.) My mother's books. Until recently I didn't have room to pick any of this stuff up. I still don't have room for the furniture, but I packed 10 boxed of books into my car, and drove them home to Brooklyn.

I was looking for five books in particular. Five books that I did not find when I unpacked my own books when I finally moved them from Jersey storage. Five books I've been terrified got lost in transit.

My mother's Complete Jane Austen
Her copy of The Lord of the Rings
Partridge's dictionary of derivations
Her travel journals
Her address book
When I got home I had the energy to shlep the boxes up to the apartment, but then I didn't open them up til I got home early from work on Tuesday. One by one, I opened the well-labeled boxes, and yet still there were surprises. I might have written on the outside that the box included LANGUAGE BOOKS, but that didn't prevent it from holding a 1958 Berlitz French Verb Wheel. And who knew that ANN HARDCOVER would include her Girl Scout handbook, Das Kapital, and Adrienne Rich?

One by one, I went through the boxes. I looked at every book. My mother's interests emerged clear as if we were hanging out talking. Wildflowers, gardening, and foraging. Crewel embroidery and calligraphy. Cooking. Poetry. Feminist literature. Tolkien, Austen, and other classic literature. One by one, I fell under my mother's spell. I took her broken-spined Hobbit up to my night table. I put Wildflowers of North America on my flowers and gardening shelf. I wish I had nothing to do but live my mother's life. No, that's not quite right. I think what I wish for is to live my own version of her life, starting with my being able to have a Yard of My Own and skip work tomorrow to go plant in it. (And yes, there was a whole box dedicated to Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard.)

Her Austen was there. Her Tolkien was there. Partridge, not (I think my sister has it) and neither were her journals or address book, both of which I think I have separately somewhere (and it unnerves me not to know where.) But even without them, it is delicious to piece together my mother's life, and my own, through her library. And so Bilbo Baggins kept me company as I fall asleep, as he did for my mother many a night.

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