Reading with my mother

Before the onset of dementia, my mother liked to play music, play bridge, and read. For 50 years she taught piano lessons every afternoon during the week, always approaching music with patience and kindness. She was a crackerjack bridge player, but her favorite pastime was reading. Here’s what my mother taught me about reading:

If you can get to a public library, you can go anywhere in the world.

Our mother introduced her three daughters to the library early, and I spent many Saturdays riding my bike to the East Marietta Shopping Center, where there was a library branch, loading up my basket with books, stopping at the drugstore for a tuna sandwich and a cherry Coke, then riding home to read for the rest of the weekend. Now parents would never let their kids disappear for a day unsupervised, but that was the 50’s and 60’s and we felt safe roaming our neighborhood. The library opened up the whole world to me, and to this day my parents and I frequent our local public library for learning and entertainment. I can download books from the library on my book reader and my phone, taking the world with me wherever I go.

You can find something funny in (almost) every book.

We weren’t allowed to watch TV on weeknights. To this day I do not understand any nostalgic references to 60’s TV unless the shows aired on Friday or Saturday night. But reading was never forbidden, and we learned to enjoy reading by example. We were encouraged to read, and often one or the other parent would read children’s classics from Treasure Island to Anne of Green Gables with us, or to us.

My mother wasn’t big on telling stories like my dad was, but she did read out loud to us. Once she discovered the stories of Flannery O’Connor, and she loved them so much she read them out loud to us at the dinner table – not the most appetizing fare, but I did learn that there is humor in the bizarre and grotesque. From the surly young adult’s accusation that the farm wife was a “wart hog from hell” to the grandmother’s annoying back-seat behavior that led to death by serial killer, we learned that there’s humor in even the darkest story.

Romance can happen at any age and in any place.

Later in life, probably when dementia was just beginning to set in, my mother developed obsessions with certain books. She would buy multiple copies and send them to her friends and family. I remember two in particular: Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice.

One of my mother’s friends wondered why in the world she received A Town Like Alice from my mom. This novel tells the story of an unlikely WWII romance between two prisoners of the Japanese in Malaya. The British heroine Jean assumes that her Australian friend Joe has been killed, but after the war she learns otherwise and seeks him out, eventually finding him in the Australian Outback. I suspect that my mom identified with the time – She was a college student during WWII. She also loved the independent, entrepreneurial spirit of the protagonist and the love story between two strong-minded people.

Boring is not always bad.

Winter Solstice is the kind of book I never would have finished as a young person. It is domestic in nature, centering on the lives of a group of people who gather for a winter holiday in snowy Scotland. In Winter Solstice everything seems to happen in real time – slowly that is – and there’s not a lot of action. The book is about the complex relationships that exist in ordinary lives. Reviewer Ann L. Bruns comments that “it embodies the most fundamental of issues: old age, loss of loved ones, parents and children, and emotional isolation.” My mother sent me (and all her friends) this book one Christmas when I was home alone. It was a fitting read for a quiet holiday. From that experience I learned that “boring” is a matter of perspective.

Reading out loud builds a bond.

At the true onset of dementia, my mother quit reading anything new, except People Magazine, which presents brief stories in tiny, easy-to-negotiate paragraphs. She couldn’t find her copy of Winter Solstice and my dad went on a mad hunt for it. He finally found it, but she is not able to concentrate on an activity like reading, so it lies under her bed, a comforting reminder of past good reads.

I recently decided to try reading aloud to her. The first short Christmas novel I read didn’t go over well – it involved death of a child and it made my mom cry. Remembering her fixation on Winter Solstice, I picked another exploration of small-town domestic life in Ireland, A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy. Because of her People reading skills, my mother knew that Binchy had recently died, so the initial reception to this idea was tearful, but I convinced her to give it a try. Each chapter in the book tells the story of a particular character, so I can read a chapter and then stop. Just as an experiment, I quiz her about the previous chapter, and she is very good at remembering characters and their names – She even remembers the name of the cat (Gloria)! I’m finding the book fun to read, and I really enjoy discussing the chapters with her. We speculate on what will happen next, why the cat is named Gloria, and other deep subjects. I’ll report on our read-aloud progress with this and other read-aloud book in future blog posts.

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