The One Book My Mother Wouldn’t Share With Me
My mother was a voracious reader. She filled our house with stacks and stacks of books, overflowing in various corners, and all ripe for the taking. The built-in bookshelves were filled from head to toe with hard covers, soft covers with wrinkling spines, and piles of psychological prose. This was her shrine to words, and she shared it with everyone. There wasn’t a book my mother wouldn’t give me—except Brooklyn Pops Up. That one book was off-limits.
Weird, right? I mean, we are talking about an uber-intellectual woman. Boarding school, Columbia Grad, the works. The woman who taught English at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan when she was just a few years older than the boys in her class. Why did a lady of literature hold on so tightly to a blue-covered pop-up book about the borough we lived in?
While my mother devoured books, it was somewhat challenging for me to read. I never really knew why, or had a diagnosis. I just knew that when I sat down to read like the rest of my family, my mind would wander. Chunks of time would pass, and I was still stuck on the same page. I could read, but early on I learned that I could listen better— and listening is how I advanced myself, in school and later, in my career. What I could not ascertain through the written word, I’d make up for through bionic listening. We all have our strengths.
But still, I felt like an outsider without my nose in a book. My sister would read for hours on end, but for me it never took. Not then anyway. I would stare at those bookcases, like wallpaper in our house—with the books covering almost every crevice, every corner, of the built-in shelves—and I would hope they would become my love too.
Yet, sometimes when I was little, I would curl up next to my mother on the bed and she would read aloud parts of Huckleberry Finn or other school-assigned books that I needed a narrator for. She did it with vibrato, like the actress she always wanted to be, and I was instantly taken away through the power of her voice. I listened to every word and every shift in intonation.
I got older and my parents traded their home for an apartment. They got rid of many heirlooms, but they still stacked their dwelling with endless books. When I’d visit, my mother, ever-hopeful, would gather a small pile of bestsellers and popular titles for me to take. She was like my own personal shopper—better than the library, and no late fees. That is how I began to read more.
When I became a teacher, I was, as ever, drawn to that pop-up book. After all, I taught in Brooklyn, where I had grown up. The book had big, perfectly designed pictures of popular landmarks that I could show to my students. The Wonder Wheel at Coney island, a slice of Junior’s famous cheesecake. All my favorite haunts, in one place—and in three dimensions.
“Can I have this one?” I asked, smiling with the book in my hand.
“No, not this one,” my mother said. “It is special.”
I was permitted to borrow the book for short stints, as long as it was encased in a plastic covering, like some old person’s furniture. I’d bring it to select classes and my students would huddle close as I explained each landmark and its significance and then allowed them to gaze at the pop-up picture. The students oohed and ahhed at each page. Then, as promised, I would return the book—and grab another paper back to devour on my own.
It seemed that through the years my mother was able to pick out books that I would enjoy. Soon, I began to read more. I even joined a book club. And years later my words and essays would find places in books of their own.
My mother and I began texting more as we got older. We found this is an easier form of communication for several reasons. A text from mom quickly became a text I looked forward to, always filled with praise and adulation and sometimes a cute little emoji—not bad for an octogenarian.
Last year, as the school year was winding down, the inconceivable happened. My mother passed away unexpectedly. Her endless words—all the words she had ever read to me— exploded in my mind. I couldn’t read or write—or do much of anything—for a while. But eventually, I needed to help sort through her things. I did not want to. Like a good book, I did not want her story to end.
And then there it was. Near all the psychology books and books on loss from her work as a psychoanalyst. That blue Brooklyn Pops Up book, still in its plastic covering, and slightly yellowed with time. I grabbed it and stashed it with a few other precious things.
Everything else still sits in a corner somewhere, but that book is on my desk. I look at it every day to remind me of the woman who first read to me,and whose voice is in the background of every book I read.
I will never know why Brooklyn Pops Up was so important to my mother. Perhaps it was because it is something she read to her grandchildren, maybe because it’s beautifully designed, or simply because it was filled with memories of her own five decades in the borough. But now, it is mine.
Since her passing, I haven’t had the strength to read it to my students. I fear I will break into tiny pieces when I think about the lifetime she spent so attached to words and stories. I take it in fragments. One picture at a time. Just as I did when I first learned to read. Just as she taught me to.
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