My mother is not well-educated, I don’t believe she even completed high school, the child of an unkind war that robbed her early of her father. Her mother was taken away by cancer when my mother was just a teen-ager and, suddenly, finding herself to live with her aunt and uncle and their sons, she was quickly groomed to become a wife. Her dream of becoming a nurse was promptly quashed by her surgeon uncle, with the lapidary “they are all whores”, a pronouncement probably borne by his personal experience of extra-marital affairs around the hospital.
And a wife she did become, a bit more rapidly than desired but never confessed, and she went about keeping a middle-class home until I came along, to add to her duties. She was an impeccable and loving mother to my baby sister and me, our house always immaculate, her food exquisite and her lively personality the life of every party.
My father engaged in a daily ritual with the newspaper and could occasionally be found reading history books but my mother, always eager to encourage my reading obsession, scarcely thumbed through anything more than a magazine here and there. My parents, proud of their bookish daughter who spent endless afternoons tucked in a corner, nose in a book, I suspect measured my intelligence by the mounting stacks of books on the shelves. What brains I do possess, unbeknownst to her, I probably inherited from my mother and her literary family – her quick wit, her uncanny ability to read people, her intuition always made up for the lack of formal education.
When her brood finally flew the nest and her husband fled with a younger woman, she filled her days with work and friends, the occasional travel and her unerring optimism. Books, not so much. Her eyesight took a turn for the worse with her third, unlucky pregnancy which inaugurated years of glasses lost, misplaced, broken or perennially inadequate. For her extreme organization, my mother can display extremely lax traits.
Recently, during our weekly phone chat, she confessed at having shelled out an ungodly amount of money for two new pairs of glasses and, in the same breath, as if to counteract my expected tirade on fiscal responsibility, she told me she had taken up reading.
“ What are you reading?” I asked, somewhat sceptically.
Being my mother chronically unable to recall names, locations or movie titles, I am used to listening to lengthy plot descriptions. I can’t remember movies from 2 years ago but my mother can fill me in on movie details from the ‘50s, but no titles. From the plot she was describing, I made out she was reading “Silk” by Alessandro Baricco, an odd choice for a new reader. It turns out a neighbour gave it to her and she liked the slimness of the volume, not too daunting. More succinctly than any book critic, her response to my enquiry as to whether she liked the book was “Yes, it’s a lovely story. A bit repetitive at times”.
Skimming over the elegance of the language, she nonetheless nailed a lovely book, indeed a bit repetitive at times.
It has been just over a month since this new-found passion and every phone call has brought news of plots and characters; she is devouring books she collects here and there, always lacking a title or an author, staying up at night, new glasses perched on her nose, reading into the wee hours to know what happens next. Just like her daughter used to do as a kid and still does now. More alike than we ever imagined.