“You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be–
I had a Mother who read to me.”
Strickland Gillilan, “The Reading Mother”
I started reading when I was three years old.
I don’t remember how this wonderful world of words was revealed to me or what book I was reading, but it’s a good bet that my mom had something to do with it.
I say this because if I think back to my earliest reading days, it really starts with my mom. She’s the one who took me (and my not-a-reader brother) to storytime at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Branch. She made me piles of large index cards that I spread out on the floor and combined into different sentences – over and over again, for hours. Those sentence combinations became my first stories. This wasn’t work; this was, honest to God, my idea of a fun time.
From what I remember of my ’70s childhood, my mother wasn’t an avid reader but I wanted to read anything that she had – whether it was a book she owned or one from the library. There was a sandy-colored book about a boy named Gideon (maybe that was the title, I can’t remember) who had learning difficulties. My mom read Erma Bombeck. I remember her reading a book on the finger math system Chisanbop, and later, Carolyn Chute’s novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine.
I remember spending hours at night and on weekends in her office together typing nearly 200 pages of what would become my first novel – my entry in an Avon/Flare publishing contest for teens. I didn’t win, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how much that support meant to me.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of influence – how it is that the who and the what and the where aspects of our lives have the most impact on the people we turn out to be. Every day I see kids come into the library with their parents and caregivers for storytime and other programs, and it makes me wonder what, exactly, it was that sparked my interest in books and reading and writing. I wonder how different my life would be if my mom hadn’t brought me to the library when I was the same age, if she didn’t show me how words on flash cards could be transformed into sentences, if Santa Claus didn’t bring me my own typewriter when I was five years old.
My son is not a reader. He used to be, but not anymore. This, despite having parents who are avid readers, a mother who works in a library, a house full of books, and a legacy of being read to constantly as a child. I find myself questioning what I did wrong, as if the fault is mine. God knows I’ve made my mistakes as a parent but on the reading front, I honestly think I’ve done everything humanly possible to get the kid to pick up a book.
On the other hand, my daughter loves reading. She often has five books going simultaneously and the library where I work was one of her “must visit” destinations before we ever moved to Pittsburgh. We read the same books (she’s currently enthralled with The Fault in Our Stars and we have big plans to see the movie on opening weekend).
I used to think that my mom knew what she was doing. I don’t mean that in the wrong way; I mean that in the sense that I guess that, up until recently, I always thought she knew some secrets that I have yet to figure out. She says things were much easier back then, and while that may be a matter of perception, I think it’s just that they were different. I’ve come to the conclusion that in the end, it’s really all a crapshoot. So much of this parenting gig is trial and error. We can do everything the so-called experts tell us to do and yet little or nothing “sticks.” There’s no reason why I love to read and my brother doesn’t. Same with my own kids. A crapshoot.
Maybe my mom felt like that in some aspects of raising me and my brother. In fact, I don’t need to wonder; I’m sure she did. By the time she was 45, the same age I am now, she had been a widow for three years – and suddenly single-parenting two teenage kids. I can’t imagine how the hell she did it. I honestly can’t.
So in the meantime you do the best you can. You write your own book. Sometimes, you’re surprised at what works.
And most of the time, well … you’re just surprised.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you.