Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Our Mother's Books

I love ebooks, but I also love the real ones, and every time I have to buy a new book, I am torn. This holiday, something happened that made me really appreciate the real ones. I and my four siblings were faced with a difficult task that left a mark on us all, and I don't think it would have done so if not for real books, with real paper, and dust, and handwritten notes, and of course, that old-book scent.

What happened was that in order to accommodate our mother's care team at the residence where she lives, we had to free up some space in her room. And that meant books had to go.

Marion Rae McLaren
Our mother was a librarian. She loved books, history, antique furniture, and her 5 kids. Everywhere she has ever lived would most accurately be described as a library with nice furniture in it. Our mum had every kind of book imaginable - all the Time Life series', science references, World Wars I and II, The History of Flight, the history of probably the entire world, Birds of North America, the Royal Family, Bibles, Bible History, Films, Lady Diana, complete works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, you name it. Not to mention all the magazines to which she subscribed - Time, Newsweek, The Economist. We rarely, if ever, had to go to the library for research.

Over the years, we have had to move our mother several times, due to her declining health, and with each move, her world has shrunk a little more, both the physical living space and her memory. Each move has required that we remove more of her things. Some we have distributed among the five of us, but most we have had to give away. We've had to pack up quite a few boxes of her beloved books, her Franklin Mint collections, fine china, and beautiful linens, keeping only those things that we felt she would want to keep, and also those things that we identified most closely with her. It's been a kind of slow and painful filtering process, most of which she mercifully missed. The last move was three years ago, after which we were down to two bookcases (each way overstuffed, with sagging shelves), one antique chest of drawers, one antique mirror, a tv, a CD player, a lovely old armchair, and one side table that was made by her father, our grandfather, a country gentleman in the finest tradition.

This holiday, the physiotherapist needed us to remove, among other things, one bookcase, which in this case meant removing roughly the equivalent of two bookcases-worth of books. As has always happened when we have had to go through this, we found ourselves falling into a pattern. We began by industriously going through the books, sorting them into two piles: give-away or keep. But every few minutes, someone unearthed a book that made us all stop, gather, and remember. This slowed us down quite a bit, but even though we had a limited window of time, we allowed ourselves this luxury, knowing that this was probably the last time we would do this.

Sometimes we gathered over a book with a name and date handwritten in it:

Mum's writing in
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
(note the price)

Mum's writing in Pickwick Papers,
a gift to her brother, Alex

Sometimes it was a book we remembered reading ourselves. I found the book on Stonehenge that I had used for a project in elementary school. My siblings paused over The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which they were all surprised to learn each had read at different times - and I mean this actual copy of it. My sister and I wondered how many other people had read The Double Helix after plucking it off their own living room bookshelf. We found comfort from the pamphlets and travel books she brought back from her trips to Europe and Asia, knowing that long before her world was reduced to this tiny room, she had realized a lifelong dream of travelling. After repeating this cycle of sorting and gathering many times, we eventually managed to finish.

By then, the overall effect on us was a sense of being steeped in a rich broth. By the end of the whole endeavour, we are all freshly imbued with our mother's intelligence, her passion for history, her love of reading, and her deep abiding devotion to us.

I'm not saying she is now reduced to her books in our minds. Of course, the books don't tell the whole story of our mum -  that as a girl she first saw The Wizard of Oz in a movie theatre, that she spent a few years being a career girl in New York City, that she raised the five of us virtually on her own, put us all through University, did her Master's degree at night after working all day, even took some math courses that tortured her but that she got through, that she was a news junkie, she survived an abusive mother and absentee husband, she was a snappy dresser, she loved M*A*S*H*, and she quit smoking just before retiring. Or that she was always enrolled in some continuing education course, or presiding over the St. James Literary Society, providing us all with an authentic model of a lifelong love of learning.

But the books do tell a part of her story, and our story. Sometimes, things, concrete things, do matter. I wonder how, or if, any of this could have happened if her entire collection had been in digital form. There would have been no need to go through anything, because digital books don't take up space. The five of us wouldn't have had to be there at the same time to mutually decide anything. There would have been no handwriting, or dusty old library scent, because there would be no pages to hold it. And I don't know how it works with borrowing books from someone's e-reader, but I bet it's not free, and it's not as cool as finding the actual book you and your sister both read, and that your mum read too.

In fact, I wonder what collection of mine would my own children have to go over so that they came away with a sense of what I loved in this life, what I made time for even when it was really hard to. And what about their kids? What are we leaving behind that tells our loved ones who we were, and does it even matter?

Well, I know it mattered to the five of us that because of our mum and her books, we were all there together, just the five of us, if only for a short time. And because of the memories those books held,  it was like Mum was there too.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank for reading and commenting, Mimi, I'm glad you liked it!

  2. This is beautiful, my sister, just like you.
    Love, Leslie.

    1. You too my sister. Thanks for reading it, I hope it helped. <3

  3. Hey Audrey,

    Thanks.. it was beautiful and authentic... from the heart baby!



  4. Thanks, my sister from another mister!

  5. I am in tears from reading this...so very touching. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much Mary, for reading and for your kind comment. It means the world to me!

  6. Audrey,

    I am also in tears, and you inspired me to write about my own mother. Thank you for this, I am reminded of so many wonderful times with my mother and books also.

    Happy mother's day!

    1. Thank you for this Teresa, I'm so happy to hear that it inspired you to write! I look forward to reading about your mom. So many teachers have parents who were bookworms, and I hope my kids will remember that about me too.

  7. Wow. Very powerful and very touching. Our house over the years has also been filled with the Time-Life books, the non-fiction and the favourite novels, but I fear people are moving away from physical collecting of paper treasures. Our photographs are moving online; even the unfocused ones that shouldn't be seen, and our libraries are being reduced to Kindles and tablets. I wonder if the future will have my family huddled around a screen, scrolling through my Facebook profile...

    1. Thank you Gerry! It means so much to me when my friends read what I've written. One friend suggested that in many ways we are leaving more of ourselves behind for our kids, at least those of us who blog. My kids won't read this now, but I bet they will when I'm gone.

  8. Engaging, eloquent and touching piece of writing. :-) The gradual downsizing is somehow like a (torturous?) process of closure, but ultimately so meaningful in remembering and honoring the life of departing loved ones. I did not know that your mom had travelled to Europe and Asia. I do remember your mom as a thoughtful, hardworking and intelligent woman.
    I see that this was posted January 1, 2013 at a time when I myself was still in shock and in the throes of trying to process both emotionally, logistically and administratively the tragic death of my beloved husband. Thus the delay in my response. (better late than never, I hope..?) ....The grief that accompanies the passing of our loved ones can only be understood by those experiencing it and I know that it can be one of the most painful and difficult struggles in life which only the passing of time can alleviate (but in some cases, not even time helps that much). But here's to your mom, to a life lived fully and meaningfully!

    1. You're so right, Lisa, the whole process was at the same time painful, enriching, and healing. In fact, now that I think of it, it's exactly what my mum went through with her own parents. I understand completely about the timing of your comment, no worries there. It means so very much to me that you wrote this, thank you!