After years of deteriorating vision, my mother finally reached the point last week where she can no longer read.
I can think of no one else who will miss reading as much.
Whether Scandinavian detective novels or Téa Obreht’s Inland or a large-print version of Moby-Dick, Mom is always reading something, usually several books at the same time.
When I call to see how she and dad are doing, we talk about doctor appointments and Trump Era politics. But inevitably conversation turns back to books.
Mom, now 86, tells me why Melville went into such extraordinary detail about the specifics of whaling, the separating of blubber and bone, the rendering of blubber into oil. Or she asks me to look up a few lines of poetry her mother used to recite.
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth;
Tis verse that gives Immortal youth to mortal maids
Mom wants to know who wrote that, so I look it up for her.
It makes sense she’s such an avid reader. Both her parents earned PhDs in English literature from Yale in the 1930s. Her dad worked as a college professor until his untimely death at 37. And then her mother, after moving the young family back to Nebraska, became the one-woman English Department at a Catholic college in Omaha.
When Mom first met Dad 64 years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich., her big takeaway was, This guy has read as much Dickens as I have!
Unlike her parents, Mom did not teach for a living. Instead she volunteered as an art teacher and served as PTA president during the first year of school integration in our part of Maryland. She and my father raised four kids, and then she returned to school in the early 1980s in order to earn a second four-year degree. Her first was from Smith College, her second from the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C.
She also has a masters degree in history from the University of Michigan.
For 20 years Mom owned and operated a photography gallery in the Dupont Circle area of D.C. She also learned pottery and necklace-making along the way. The homes of her children and grandchildren are full of her creations.
A light sleeper, she picks up whatever’s handy in the middle of the night and reads that till she falls back to sleep. Sometimes she even sleep-reads. Halfway between waking and dreaming, she just keeps reading. The next day it’s sometimes hard to sort out what she read, what she dreamed, what she invented as better plot points for the story.
Mom is always confident in her critical judgment. Indeed, it may be said she comes from the Not Always Right, But Never in Doubt school of criticism. She’ll tell you which actor played Hamlet best, which modern re-telling of Beowulf succeeds, where John O’Hara’s work stands in the American canon, and which George Eliot novels you can skip altogether.
“Oh don’t bother with Daniel Deronda,” she told me. “If you’ve already done Middlemarch, then go to Mill on the Floss next.”
When my siblings and I go back East to visit, we find her in the mornings in her favorite chair, head tilted back, eyes closed, books on both sides of her, one in her lap.
She reads not to be considered smart or well read, but because she is curious. And not just about the books themselves; she wants to know everything about the writers — where they lived, what they thought of contemporaries. She wants to know whether this one got along with that one, whether this other one drank too much. She’ll tell you everything she knows about the relationship between neighbors Melville and Hawthorne. She is not above trading in literary gossip.
Arguably one flaw in her critical reading is a tendency to see sub-textual homoerotic themes in just about any work she comes across. (Don’t get her started on Melville.) But to point this out about her is splitting hairs. Infusing it all — her reading, her analysis, her questions about what you yourself are reading — is joy and enthusiasm. Beautiful old photos of Faulkner, Tennyson, Yeats, Whitman, Joyce, and T.S. Elliot hung on the walls of my childhood home. My own name — both the formal Christopher and the informal Kit — are from the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Even with the loss of vision, Mom will still be able to listen to books. Though she can’t see her iPhone well enough to use it for audiobooks, she can operate the CD player which she and my father have been using lately to listen to country music.
That’s another laudable trait — her openness to all genres and art forms. A book, movie, or song either works or it doesn’t. The pedigree of the creator is beside the point, in her view.
After watching a Ken Burns documentary about country music last year, Mom went down an absolute rabbit hole exploring Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, the Carter Family, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson.
Of the Kristofferson song “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” she told me, “Oh Kit, that is a major song.”
I said “Me and Bobby McGee” was pretty good, too.
Mom wasn’t having it. “You can feel that hangover in ‘Sunday Coming Down,’ you can feel the emptiness and sadness.”
She gives high marks, too, to “Pancho and Lefty,” written by the late Townes Van Zandt.
Livin’ on the road, my friend,
Was gonna keep you free and clean.
Now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath is hard as kerosene.
You weren’t your mamma’s only boy,
But her favorite one, it seems.
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams.
Pancho was a bandit, boys,
His horse as fast as polished steel.
He wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel.
“That’s not a song,” Mom said. “That is poetry.”
I asked a couple days ago what books on CD she wants me to send.
“Oh the usual,” she said. “Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield … any of those. We always love Dickens. Whatever you can find.”
She was admirably cheerful, I thought, given the loss of her first love — reading.
“Oh it’s okay,” she said. “I still have my second love — your father.”
“And I still have Kris Kristofferson.”