that's what she said

i read books and write things and then i read more books
Books

Thumbprints

My mum has been gone now for seven years. As more time passes, and I’m able to distance myself from the last years of her life that were so consumed by illness, I find I’m able to remember her with increasing clarity. I was by her side for all the defining moments of her disease, and the experience of supporting her through that horrific battle left me unable to think of her in any other way. For years, I couldn’t remember what she looked like before she got sick. I couldn’t remember all the favourite foods she loved to eat. I couldn’t remember what she loved to do when she was fully mobile and pain-free.

Over the past year or so, I find I’m slowly starting to be able to remember her as a healthy, whole, person. As the memories blurred by grief slowly start to come back into focus, I’m able to think more clearly about the many legacies she left. And perhaps there is no single legacy as strong and lasting as the love of reading she instilled in me.

I grew up in a house filled with books. Some of my earliest memories are of my sister, mum and I lying on the bed together — my mum in the middle, with my sister and I on either side. She would read to us, holding the books by using her thumbs on the very bottom corners of the pages so we could see all of the pictures. I still have a copy of one of the books we read together dozens of times. (Farewell to Shady Glade, by Bill Peet). The pages had a distinct smell, and many times since she’s passed away, I’ve opened that book, and breathed in the scent. I’ve looked for her thumbprints on the pages. I’ve remembered how she helped me fall in love with words, and stories, and characters.

I started reading at a young age, which is pretty typical for kids who are exposed to books from birth. I loved the ability to read independently. I would spent all my time in the reading centre at school, I would come home and read before dinner, and I’d read after I was tucked into bed at night. We would visit the library every Wednesday after piano lessons, and I’d come home with a tote bag full of new books each week.

The first “grown up” book I read was given to me by my mum. It was Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I was going through a difficult time at school, learning how to navigate the world of female friendships. The book tells the story of Elaine, who is reflecting upon her childhood friendship with Cordelia — the leader of a trio of girls who were alternately kind and heartbreakingly cruel. I was eight years old when I read the book, and it felt like a mirror was being held up to my life. Someone had put into words and made sense of my experience. And despite the fact that it was fiction (for what is fiction, anyway, but a slightly glossier version of truth), it helped to know that someone else had lived this experience and survived to tell the tale.

That book continues to resonate with me 30 years later. I plan to give it to my daughter on her eighth birthday. I’ve read hundreds of books since then, but that novel is usually the one I cite whenever I’m asked the “what’s your favourite book” question. Because really, it’s the one that truly opened my eyes to the incredible and transformative power of literature. My mum was the one that placed that book in my hands – and it truly changed my life forever.

My favourite way to spend my alone time has always been browsing through a bookstore. Without fail, I always find a book that I want to buy for my mum. Since she passed away, I’ve read so many novels that I know she would have loved. I used to get angry thinking about how unfair it was that she wouldn’t be able to read them. And I still do, sometimes. But I’m finding that occasionally now, when I finish an amazing book, or when I pick up a new release by one of her favourite authours, or when I listen to my sons reading confidently to me, I’m starting to feeling something else, at the edges of the grief. I’m not entirely sure what to call it yet, but it feels warm and comforting, and it reminds me of being snuggled in bed with my mum, in my earliest days of learning about the wonder of books.

With the passing of time, I hope this feeling grows. I want it to crowd out the anger and grief. I want to think of my mom, and when I do, I want to be left only with love.