My Mother’s Secret by Tricia Springstubb
Writers are opportunists, especially when it comes to our own memories. We’ve put them into service, used and transformed them so often, it can get hard to draw the line between truth and invention.
But here’s one memory I know is true: my mother, awake long after we five kids are in bed. She’s curled in a corner of the couch—several different couches, over the years—with her cigarette, her watery highball, and a novel. The smoke snakes up in the light from the end table lamp, her narrow feet are tucked under her, and the only sound is the crinkle of the plastic cover on her library book. Exhausted as she must have been, my mother needed to read even more than she needed to sleep.
All my siblings share this memory. One of my brothers says that seeing how deeply she loved books made reading “imperative” in his life. Her example was so strong that for much of my own adult life, I could only read fiction at night. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the chance during the day—I’ve been lucky to manage life so I always have more time to myself than she did. But somehow I absorbed the idea that fiction is a delicious, decadent reward to be earned over a long, hard day of reality, and reading while the sun shone felt like cheating.
Here’s something else all five of us agree on: she never read to us. Never.
How can that be? I think about the few books she owned. I don’t mean her battered, spit-up-stained Dr. Spock, which she once had me read aloud, my voice someone else’s, as she bent over my feverish, convulsing infant sister. I mean the novels, all three, maybe four, of them. (Did she really own Tender is the Night, or was that the divorced father I babysat for, who also had a set of bongo drums?) Our family never bought books, so these were intensely interesting to me. Two were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the editions with Fritz Eichenberg’s terrifying wood engravings. The books were printed in 1943, when my mother would have been 18. If I ever knew how she came to own them, I forget, which lets me imagine a boy who longed to win her reader’s heart, or an impulsive purchase of her own, spending all her graduation money in one fell swoop. By the time I got to high school and was assigned Jane Eyre, I practically knew it by heart.
But the third book intrigues me even more. In my unreliable memory, her copy of A Girl of the Limberlost has a deep, swampy smell, and pressed between its pages a gorgeous, dusty moth. Elnora Comstock and her exotic butterflies, Elnora and her bitter, disappointed mother—I’d never read anything so foreign and yet so familiar. Elnora craves only one thing more than a happier life: her mother’s affection. Mrs. Comstock derides her daughter’s foolish dreams, even tries to sabotage them. Oddly, it’s not Elnora’s triumphs and romance, but her mother I most vividly remember. One of the touchstones of my reading life—a moment I felt the electrifying power of literature to illuminate everything—is the scene where Elnora opens her lunch box to discover the delectable food her mother has secretly prepared. All the love her mother can neither deny nor express is tucked into that lunch box. I could taste that spicy, sugared ham, the thick, buttered bread, even the preserved, amber-colored pear (though who knew what that was). Elnora took a bite, and so did I. Our mothers loved us and wanted the best for us, unnecessary as they felt it to tell us so. So much that passed unspoken between me and my mother is in that scene.
Only now, re-reading it, do I notice that Elnora’s mother was name Kate. Mine was Kay.
My mother never recommended these books to me. I read them on the sly, sensing I trespassed on a private landscape. Not till I was an adult did she and I talk books. In her last years, reading was our favorite, safest topic, but while raising us she protected her reading life. I’m reluctant to say she escaped into fiction. I’d rather say that, like me, she was greedy for other lives.
That she didn’t read to us kids is, thinking back, not so surprising after all. She made sure we learned how, but after that, we were on our own. My mother only let us claim so much of her. When I was young, this sometimes felt like a failure of love, but now I see it differently. She counted on us to understand things she never said. That’s a form of love, precious as a perfect, preserved pear.
Tricia reads aloud to herself every day, testing each line she writes. She is the author of the middle grade novels What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found, and most recently the picture book Phoebe and Digger. You can find her online at http://www.triciaspringstubb.com or on Twitter as @springstubb.