One Saturday afternoon, soon after I became engaged, I sat in the den at my parents’ house, reviewing the brochures on silver and china patterns I’d collected. I picked up a pamphlet and read aloud to my mother:
“‘Other silver makers will tell you that theirs is the original Queen Anne Williamsburg pattern, but don’t be misled.'”
My parents’ heads both shot up. “Could we have that again?” my father said.
“‘But don’t be misled,'” I said.
“Let me see that,” my mother said. Then she whooped.
“That’s not ‘my-zulled’, it’s ‘miss-led’,” she said, and everyone — mother, father, fiance, and brother — burst out laughing.
“You mean M-I-S-L-E-D isn’t pronounced ‘my-zulled’?” I said. “Doesn’t it sound like ‘reprisal’?”
Everyone laughed harder. “Oh honey,” my mother said finally, “we’re not laughing at you.”
“Oh yeah? Well you’re not laughing with me, because I’m not laughing.” My face was hot with embarrassment. “It looks like my-zulled,” I said. “My-zull” was part of my reading vocabulary (as opposed to a speaking vocabulary), one of many words I had seen or written but never spoken. My reading vocabulary was extensive: I’d majored in English, and at the time was finishing a Master’s in journalism, and working as a copywriter for Simon & Schuster. I believed that whoever said “the pen is mightier than the sword” was the kind of guy who probably got picked last for the team, and as I was an athletically challenged child, I had turned to books early on. Got a question? Get the book. Or even better, books, and make that plenty of them.
So I gave birth to my-zulled. “Don’t be my-zulled!” everyone in my family cautioned each other for years. Whenever we wanted to deflate each other, we would trot out that phrase. Over time, family jokes grow as individual and unique as fingerprints, and our family was rife with them. As my Great-Aunt Mae would say, “if it’s not one thing, it’s the same damn thing.” (I was finally vindicated years later when Russell Baker wrote a column on the op ed page of The New York Times revealing that for years he had mispronounced the word “misled,” thinking it rhymed with “King Faisaled.” “You see? You see?” I scribbled triumphantly across the page, and mailed it to my mother.)
I may have been my-zulled, but my mother never was. She was a stickler for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Though she was too poor to go to college, she was quick, well-read, and so precise in her speech that people often mistook her for a school teacher. She gave the dictionary a place of honor in our living room. Perpetually open, it lay atop a mahogany book stand, beside a soapstone statue of Nathan the Wise, who was mounted on an electrified base so that he could shed literal light. As a child I liked to run my hand over the cool drapes of Nathan’s pale robes, and would smooth the enunciated and intricately carved fingers. The shelf below this table was always filled with piles of National Geographic, The New Yorker, and my father’s electronic supply catalogs.
My mother bought The World Book when I was in the third grade, a beige, fake leather-bound set with yearly updates. I would sit and look up one of my current heroines, such as Madame Curie or Helen Keller, read the entry; then, seduced by words on the opposite page, curl into the barrel chair next to the dictionary stand, and read the rest of the encyclopedia. I’d turn page after page from entries on Kennel Club dog breeds to Kenya, Khartoum, Kinescopes, and the Kremlin, the jolly drawings of Kris Kringle giving way to terrifying photos of Kwashiorkor-swollen babies, until I had exhausted “K,” and would rise, logy and stumbling, to put away the volume and vow to tackle “L” another day.
The power of the written word was sacred, and my mother taught me to worship it. My parents received three newspapers a day, The New York Times, the local Long Island Press, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as a wealth of magazines. My mother was such a hungry reader that during the Depression, when my grandmother washed the kitchen floor and laid newspapers down while it dried, my mother would sit and read three-week-old papers as avidly as if they were the latest screen magazines. At ten she read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Woolf. “I didn’t understand any of it,” she told me, “I just read whatever I could get my hands on.” She developed her own method, reading so fast that, as a high school student, she was sent to Columbia University for testing to see just what her system was. I often wonder if Evelyn Woods, who coined the phrase “speed reading” and developed the system known as Reading Dynamics, was part of the team that studied my mother. Reading, all reading, was a sacrament. Years later, even as other parents clucked and commented, my mother allowed me comic books. “I don’t care what she reads, as long as she’s reading,” she’d say.
Before I learned to read, my mother read aloud to me until she was hoarse; merciless, I’d beg for just one more chapter, and she usually gave in. I loved to nestle against her, to feel the resonance of her voice. She read all of Frank Baum’s Oz books to me; The Secret Garden, and best of all, A Little Princess. I wanted to be Sara Crewe, the bookish heroine who begins life as a beloved daughter and becomes a lonely and abused orphan, but is sustained through much hardship by her inner nobility and powerful imagination. (Eventually, she triumphs; this was children’s literature, after all.)
Initially, I struggled with reading; I still remember the humiliation when my second grade teacher assigned me to the slow group of readers in our classroom. But some time during that winter, I sneaked home our classroom reader because it was filled with intriguing pictures and I wanted to puzzle it out for myself. It was like learning to ride a bicycle; for weeks, I wobbled and fell, and then, suddenly, I was soaring. I tore through all the Nancy Drew mysteries, the Cherry Ames nurse stories, the Vicky Barton stewardess saga, Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Diary of Anne Frank. I was voracious. Reading became my parallel universe: I could flee the frenetic press of family life into an imaginary room of my own. And reading also kept the unnamed, free-floating dread at bay. Immersed in a book, I temporarily stopped thinking the sad and scary thoughts that often kept me awake long into the night.
Reading by flashlight under the covers, I didn’t have to think about my Cousin Ruthie’s fatal heart defect, her brother Stevie’s death from meningitis, or my grandmother Anna, whose leg was amputated before she died on the same dreadful day as her daughter Frances. I didn’t have to think about my mother’s pervasive sadness for the early loss of her own mother. Reading lessened the loneliness and fear. The world disappeared when I read; I was oblivious even to the sound of my own name being called. I loved it more than any other activity. I still do.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I read every volume on pregnancy in the town library, showing great panache as I tossed around terms like alpha fetal protein, chorionic villi sampling, or effleurage (which despite its floral sounding name is not a feminine hygiene product.). While I read The Miracle of Life, my husband would read Goodnight Moon to my belly. In those early, anxious days of new motherhood, I pushed aside all those labor and delivery volumes to make way for the baby care books: Spock, Brazleton, Leach, Greenspan, and Turecki. But even that was not enough: it was imperative to subscribe to four different parenting magazines. Never was redundancy so reassuring. When my son Jonathan was only a few weeks old, my husband Marc began a nightly ritual of cradling him in one arm, and reading out loud, with great expression, from The Wall St. Journal.
Not surprisingly, Jonathan’s first sentence was “Read the book.” The love of words runs like a plumb line from my mother through me to my son. My mother was known for dashing off witty quatrains, or parodies of show tunes, whenever there was a birthday or anniversary. Jonathan dictated his first stories to me at the age of three, while sitting in the bathtub, and I happily wrote them down word for word. Reading came easily to him, and by the time he was seven, he read even more hungrily than I had done. His room was heaped with books piled like ziggurats, cantilevered towers tilting so haphazardly on his bedside table that more than once they fell over on him as he slept.
His reading delighted my mother. We each saw our younger selves in him. And I suspected that Jonathan, too, was using reading to tamp down fearful thoughts. My mother, after a lifetime of smoking, was slowly smothering from emphysema. In those last years of her life, Jonathan and I clung to our comforting nightly custom of reading aloud. Leaning up against his headboard, his head pressed into my shoulder, together we escaped into magical realms that offered respite. The Indian in the Cupboard. The Borrowers. Half Magic. The Mennyms. As my mother became increasingly bedridden, we toted mystery books and video tapes to her bedside. Though she was tethered to an oxygen tank, Jonathan would snuggle against her, and when she was too weak to talk, they would simply watch television together.
“That child is the darling of my heart,” she confided.
She died when Jonathan was nine. Again, I turned to books, this time on grief and on how to explain death to children. I longed to lose myself in a book, but found I was unable to concentrate. Instead, I embarked on a frenzy of cleaning. Going through her dresser drawers one day, I discovered a letter she must have been writing to Marc on the eve of our wedding. Unlike most of her notes, this one was earnest and unrhymed. It simply said: “May Liane give you as much joy as she has given us.”
And Jonathan has given me the same joy. Watching him grow, I have been happily reminded of her love of words. I have savored his precocious malapropisms, confusing “eclectic” for “electric,” “cousin” for “cuisine,” and once, when I told him how handsome he looked, he said, “good enough to be on the cover of Vague.” Halfway through the first act of The Lion King, just after the evil uncle murdered his brother the king, Jonathan, then age ten, nudged me. “Mom,” he said. “It’s just like Hamlet.” And I thought, no one’s going to my-zull this kid.
My mother would have delighted when Jonathan’s high school literary magazine published his short stories; would have marveled at the quirky but clever essay he wrote that got him into college. Today, when I read the dire predictions that his generation no longer reads, it reassures me to see that stacks of books and magazines still litter the floor of his room.
And just as I understand Jonathan’s need to read, he knows mine. Not quite two weeks after my father passed away, the final book of the Harry Potter series was released. When the package from Amazon arrived at our doorstep, Jonathan claimed it first. He devoured the 800-page book in a single night. Then he handed it to me the way one passes a jug of water to a marathon runner. I settled into the club chair in our library, cranked open the casement window so I could smell the Casablanca lilies blooming below, and immersed myself in the world of Magic and Muggles.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote that he “always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I do too. And I like to imagine that my mother is there. Three-week-old newspapers line the checkerboard linoleum floor. She sits contented in a comfy chair, a much-thumbed copy of Webster’s Unabridged beside her. She is healed and healthy, and she is reading.