My daughter Frances is a reader. Not that she’d appreciate me telling you this. She doesn’t like me to categorize her. Even though saying someone is a reader should be good. Right? It’s not like saying she’s a thief. But I know she would say, “Mom, don’t put me in a box.” As if reading can put someone in a box. But right now she’s probably saying, “That’s not what I’d say,” which is why I try not to quote her.
Frances has a favorite bookstore in San Francisco. I don’t have to be there to imagine how she locks her teal green bike outside, walks down the aisles, and picks a book off the top shelf—she’s tall and statuesque like one of Erté’s women. She first plops her backpack, made from recycled billboards, and then her sweaty cyclist self down onto the floor, and begins to read. If it’s an old, used book in her hands, her long, delicate fingers turn each page with great care—a book lover’s touch—although she probably doesn’t like the term used book. To her nothing is used as much as passed on. She gave me a 1945 copy of Rilke’s Letters but added the caveat, “Don’t ever give this away. If you even think of it, send it back to me.”
She’s also given me books by Bella Abzug, Arundhati Roy, and Jonathan Safran Foer. I’m sure you get the picture. As for the box thing, she’s never liked when I’ve attached her to any group or movement. Even years upon years ago if I introduced her to people and said, “She’s a gymnast,” she’d roll her eyes, look embarrassed, and tell me later so no one else could hear, “Mom, I’m not a gymnast. I just do gymnastics.” Right now she’s probably saying, “That’s not what I said.”
For the record, I wish I could put both my daughters in a box. I wish I could pull them out of an old pink jewelry case, the kind where a ballerina pops up and Strauss’s “Blue Danube” plays. You may know this piece as “Froggy the Frog.” I’d like to take them out of the pink musical jewelry box every day and check that they are happy and fed and perfectly okay. But perfectly okay, well, that’s such a high bar.
A few years ago, I called my mother back in Chicago, my mother who was a reader and who would not mind me saying that. It was about six months before she died.
“She’s not here,” my father told me. “She’s at the library. Picking up books she has on hold.”
“Books?” I asked. After all, my mother was dying. Literally. Her last days. “She drove?” Thoughts collided in my head. Shouldn’t she be doing something, oh, I don’t know, more serious in her last days? Like throwing herself across a weeping couch with her hand over her forehead?
“Of course she drove. It’s her Pontiac,” my father said.
“Is she all right?” I asked. His answers rarely scraped the surface but there was no one else.
“It’s like she has these books she must read,” he told me. “Before. You know. Like she has to cross them off her list.”
I did know exactly what he was saying. My mother read every Ann Beattie, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Adams, John Irving, Ann Tyler, Milan Kundera, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood book ever written. Joyce Carol Oates has a new book out, in fact. I read a review last week. The critic was not kind. I thought of my mother. What she would have said. Something like, “What’s he know? She’s written 80 books. Tell him to go write something.”
I sent Rich Rewards by Alice Adams to Frances. Written thirty years ago. She called me and asked, “Why did you send me this book? I get that it’s set in San Francisco. But Mom, thirty years ago? Really?”
“It’s on my favorite-books-ever list,” I told her. “Read it.”
A year went by. I tried very hard not to ask her about the Alice Adams book. I’ve read it many times and each time I cry. I always forget the scene at UC Berkeley until I open the book, and I never remember the ending. It doesn’t matter that it was written all those years ago. It is a story for right now, filled with the consternations of love today, set in a city that twists and turns alongside each meticulous character. One day the phone rang—or played a song as phones do today.
“I read the book,” Frances said. ‘I loved it.”
“I knew you would,” I told her.
“This writer,” she said.
“She’s great,” I said.
“I know every street she’s walked down,” Frances told me.
“I thought so,” I told her.
My mother and I had long drawn out love affairs with books. She taught me how to use the card catalogues at the Mt. Greenwood Library on Kedzie Avenue. She taught me the Dewey Decimal system. She taught me how to order a new Alice Adams book and then wait for weeks and weeks until my turn came. Like a call from a lost lover. My turn! It was ecstasy to receive a postcard in the mail from the library that announced, “Your book is in.”
My daughter is a reader. She won’t like me telling you that. But she is. She gets it from her grandmother, although she’d say, “Mooooomm, Grandma and I never even talked about books.” But right now she’s most likely saying, “I wouldn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to talk about books with Grandma,” I’d tell her. ‘”It’s just a part of you. Genetic maybe.”
I’d tell Frances that she got so much from her grandmother.
“You have patience,” I’d say, “and you love books. You’re a reader. Just like she was.”
As my mother’s death approached, I flew into Midway Airport, rented a car, and drove to Little Company Hospital. I stopped at the K-Mart on 95th Street to buy a pad of paper. In her room, I sat on a chair near her bed and ran my hand up and down the side of the spiral bound notebook. Her mascara was fresh. I could smell her rose petal cologne. She shooed my father away. I’m sure he went for a cigarette.
“Make some notes,” she said.
“Okay.” I opened the notebook and began to write.
“Pick one of my turquoise dresses for the wake. Sally will do my hair. I’ve got my other clothes all ready. Call the deacon. He’ll get them to the women’s shelter. My purses, too. Give the bridge club ladies some of my necklaces. The grandchildren should bring the gifts to the altar. It would be nice if you could hand out a copy of one of my recipes to everyone. Maybe my Chocolate Torte or my strudel.”
My mother loved door prizes.
“Make sure they sing Panis Angelicus at church,” she added. “Ask Frances to do a reading. Eggs Benedict and mimosas would be nice after.”
“Me. Why me?” my daughter later asked.
“Because,” I told her.
Everything went as my mother had planned. The mimosas were a nice touch. And years later, my daughter, Frances. She’s a baker.