When I was little, I would pick three books to read each night with my mom before bedtime. They were typically short, but a few stick in my mind: "Bedtime for Frances," all the Frog and Toad stories, and "The Sweet Smells of Christmas," where a young bear discovers the magic of the holiday with his family. That book came with scratch-and-sniff stickers, and to this day I can conjure up the smell of those red-and-white striped candy canes just as surely as I can recall the comfort of snuggling up next to my mom while she read.
As I matured, so did my tastes in reading. It was my mother who introduced me to The Grimm Brothers’ Fairytales, those otherworldly stories of enchanting princesses, hoary beasts and that odd little man, Rumpelstiltskin, who tries to trick the miller’s daughter into giving up her baby. By third grade, I was checking out Nancy Drew mysteries from the library and gobbling them up like a big, fat pack of Twizzlers. My mom would inquire which books I’d liked best and then, like any good parent, would act interested in my opinion.
After reading Louise Fitzhugh’s "Harriet the Spy," I began toting around a notebook to record my observations of the neighborhood. My mother simply smiled, already understanding that it was a passing phase. Over the summers of fourth and fifth grade, I immersed myself in Julie Andrews’ "The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles," Wilson Rawls’ "The Summer of the Monkeys" and the heartbreaking "Where the Red Fern Grows." Sometimes my mother would read alongside me, and we agreed that Julie Andrews was both a wonderful author and a gifted actress.
During the middle-school years, when it was difficult for my mother to do anything right in my eyes, our bond over books took a hiatus. I gorged myself on Stephen King thrillers, refusing to come to the dinner table until I’d finished the last few chapters of "The Shining." And when I attended a private high school a thousand miles away from home, we spent most of our time talking about how homesick I was or how awful dining hall food could be. Books didn’t come up very often.
But then, like the ebb and flow of all good relationships, my mom and I found our way back to each other, once again through books. In college, I was taking women’s studies courses, and during our weekend talks we would chat about Gloria Steinem’s "Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions" or Betty Friedan’s "The Feminine Mystique."
“Did you ever feel this way, Mom?” I’d ask. “Do you now?” Had I missed a huge piece of her emotional life? She shared her stories about being on the UW-Madison campus before the height of the Vietnam War protests, about how difficult it was to work and raise two children at the same time. Such conversations were a springboard to discuss more books, like Toni Morrison’s "The Bluest Eye" or Gloria Naylor’s "The Women of Brewster Place." Suddenly, reading was more than great storytelling — it was a window onto people’s lives.
But it was really in my late 20s, my 30s and early 40s that our bond over books grew the strongest. My mom had more time on her hands to read, and my tastes had evolved enough that we often discovered we were reading the same book at the same time, unbeknownst to us until we picked up the phone for our Sunday night call. My mom and I both loved Elinor Lipman’s "Isabel’s Bed," with its hilarious, spirited main character. We marveled over Barbara Kingsolver’s storytelling powers in "Animal Dreams" and later confessed that we’d both fallen in love with an old Western, Larry McMurtry’s rollicking, big-hearted "Lonesome Dove." We laughed over Augustus McCrae and Woodrow McCall as if they were our long-lost relatives.
My mother also admired books tied to the land, with a strong sense of place. So, it was Kathleen Norris’s "Dakota" that gave her some solace when she and my dad drove the winding route from Wisconsin to Boston, worrying whether my newborn son, who was delivered not breathing, would survive. It was a book that I would turn to again and again during difficult times. She introduced me to Michael Perry’s "Population: 485," another book steeped in place and a strong sense of community. She loved anything by Jane Hamilton and Charles Baxter, as did I.
Of course, there were also places where our tastes diverged. Later in life, my mom took a liking to Alexander McCall Smith’s "The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency" series while I was reading a bushel of self-help books, thick in the weeds of parenting. (During one phone call my mother advised, “All you need is 'Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care.' I still have the copy I used with you. I’m sending it to you now.”)
When I finally wrote my first novel, "Three Good Things," I worried while my mother pored through the page proofs. Would she like it? How many errors would she find? I knew all too well what a tough critic she could be. Thankfully, the novel held up under her scrutiny, with just a handful of suggested changes. I had misused the word “startled” (a pet peeve of hers), and she had tweaked some details about a festival on the Square in Madison, ensuring all was authentic to her Midwestern eye. She admitted that when she read the acknowledgments page, the mention of my dad, who’d recently passed away, brought tears to her eyes.
My mother never got to read my second or third novels, and sometimes I felt adrift in the writing process without her wise input, her coaching eye. That we can’t go out together to toast "The Summer Sail," just released last week, makes me sad. But I’d like to think that she would have enjoyed the book. It is, at its heart, a story about the strong bond of women’s friendships and family ties.
My mom has been gone for over three years now, and it’s funny how there are still days when I go to call her about a new book I’ve read and have to stop myself. Wherever she might be, I hope she is surrounded by a library filled with wonderful novels.
Wonderful novels and, of course, good friends.