So I embarked on this crazy project a few years ago, to read every book in my house (still at it).
The first book took me two weeks to finish.
The next one took about a week.
The third one, I devoured in three days. I started filling notebooks and underlining quotes and scribbling ideas in the margins. Just like my mom used to do.
Beautiful as they were, these books I was reading back then were not what you would call pleasure books. They led not to escape but to confrontation. I’m not knocking escape, mind you. I just was craving the real.
Blame it on the company I was starting to keep in those days. In 2014, I was suddenly surrounded by other women who are also reading — and writing — to save their own lives. We exchanged messages on Facebook or by text, often in splurgy, unapologetic ALL CAPS that lent urgency to everything we said. We laughed a lot, because we had to. We were cracking each other up, to avoid cracking up alone:
I remember such friendships in my mom’s life, back when I was one of the bunch of kids underfoot saying pleeeeeeeeease and why caaaaaaan’t I? Our moms wiped our faces with one hand and ashed elaborately from their cigarettes into the big glass ashtray with the other. Sometimes, in groups of two or more, they sat at the kitchen table laughing so hard their coffees spilled and one of them would get down on her hands and knees, swatting the floor and screaming with laughter so hard they wept, wept, wept down on the linoleum.
Our moms wiped our faces with one hand and ashed elaborately from their cigarettes into the big glass ashtray with the other.
The flip side of this hilarity, yet connected in my mind, was my mother quietly reading, sometimes at that same kitchen table. I crept near her, afraid of her scholarly silence but craving her touch. The pictures of the women whose books she was reading — Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Judith Viorst — stared back at me as I stared at them. Sometimes, she was not reading women. Sometimes, she was underlining phrase upon phrase in another kind of book, an enormous volume with no pictures except the color illustrations of a woman’s insides or a ripe new baby, umbilicus attached. After she died, we read her notes in all the old books: “YES! YES”! in the margins in all caps, in those books by women. And in the other books, the ones she read for her work as a nurse: “MEGO” (“my eyes glaze over”) or, in polite looped cursive that did not need to be all caps to make its point: “Bullshit.”
I might, tentatively, call her name. She would look up then and smile.
“What, baby? What?” Her eyes took a moment to adjust from the page to my face. Her hand caressed my cheek. I was keeping her from her own thoughts. I felt shame that I would do so, and gratitude that she would look up.
The name I called her was not her own, but mine for her: Mommy. Even the formal name she answered to was not hers: the first two familiar names given by a woman, the last two surnames by men.
I never asked what her true name would be, if she could choose it.
What would she have told me?
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