Popehat is pleased to welcome a guest post from Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.
Several years ago, my father forwarded me an email he thought seemed suspicious. “Do you think this is a scam?” he asked. The email was from an elderly woman in Miami Beach, Florida, who had retired from teaching and was moving into an assisted living situation. She was clearing out her belongings, and she had come across some books she’d almost forgotten.
Fifty years before, this teacher had taken over her classroom from a young woman who was leaving to be married. On her first day, she had looked in the room’s supply closet, where she found a pile of books, most of them inscribed from a father to his daughter. Thinking they seemed special and that the departed teacher might want them someday, she took them home.
As these things go, the books lay forgotten, and by the time she found the young bride, it was through her obituary. My grandmother had died at the age of 87, leaving her son and several grandchildren. The retired teacher, a new internet aficionado, sent my father an email. “Would you like these books?” she asked. And my father, having lived 65 or so years himself in a world that had become more and more suspect and unreliable and scary, was worried that he was being taken for a ride.
As we head into the holiday season, we’re often asked what we’re grateful for, what would be a true gift. As my father recognized when he worried about scammers, the world, while more advanced, is also scarier and sadder in many ways than it was back when my grandmother and her successor were teaching school. I’ve been searching the internet, just as the retired teacher did, but for something different. As I sit around the Thanksgiving table next week with my parents (now in their 70s) and my husband and my teen daughters, I know I’m going to need to smile and tell them all just what makes me feel thankful. But in a year that has been about anything but peace, I’ve been looking for something concrete to hang my “thankful” hat on.
And so I began thinking about my grandmother, and books, and that retired teacher in Miami Beach.
My grandmother was a woman of style, a dedicated learner, and a lifelong reader (and crossword puzzle cheater, but don’t get me started on that). My most vivid childhood memories of her are of sitting in her living room, sometimes on the parquet floor, sometimes on the piano bench, sometimes on her brocade couch, reading some new book we’d checked out from the library. Although I lived a six-hour drive from my grandmother, she knew the librarians at her local branch well enough to talk her way into getting a borrower’s card for me; after an ice cream sundae or a trip to see the giant dolls at the department store, we’d always end up back at the same circulation desk in the same brick building, watching the librarian stamp in ink the due date for some new adventure bound up as a book.
The best part about reading with my grandmother was reading together. I don’t mean that she read aloud to me – from the age of four or so, I was determined to read on my own (I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was about eight, but that reading thing was way more necessary in my book). But we’d read together, there in her living room, my grandmother with her new mystery thriller, me with my children’s classic on which she insisted. And looking back, what I’m most grateful for in my relationship with my grandmother was that true gift she gave me: a love of books.
There was one book in particular that we both loved: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although Francie, the protagonist, lived an underprivileged Brooklyn life, and I lived in a well-to-do Texas town, there was just something about Francie that resonated for me. I wanted to be gritty, like she was, determined to do something with my life. I wanted her powers of observation, to notice the smells of baking bread and the splashes of puddles on the sidewalk. And more than anything, I wanted Francie to be understood for her love of books, even in a family that wasn’t very readerly, the way I wanted to be understood and my passion nurtured – as it was by my grandmother.
Thirty-five years later, one night, when my husband was away for work, I found myself lying in my king-sized bed, reading a book. There’s nothing remarkable about that – my children know that, if they can’t find mom, check the bedroom and see if she’s absorbed in her reading so she can’t hear you call out. But what was special about this winter evening was that my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, were lying next to me, each with her own book. We were mostly quiet, absorbed in our own stories, but every so often, one of us would say, “Listen to this!” and we’d read out a description or a joke or a pithy line. And then we’d quiet again. Eventually, they fell asleep, there in the big bed, their books in hand.
These days, as teenagers, my girls have lots of interests, and I can’t remember the last time we all piled into the big bed and read books together. My older daughter now looks at the stars and imagines flying among them, but my younger daughter still looks down, at books in her lap, at the pages she turns. She reads because she cares about words, loves how they come together into sentences and paragraphs and entire chapters of plot and character and nuance. Last week, she asked me for a suggestion for a book to read. I thought of my grandmother, and I said, “How about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?”
A few days later, a package arrived from a used book seller. My daughter disappeared into her room, tattered book in hand. For the next few days, she didn’t talk much. She’d get her backpack ready for school or look up if I told her it was time for dinner, but, mostly, she kept her eyes focused down, on paperback pages that told a story of a poor girl in Brooklyn in the 1910s and 20s.
Yesterday, she came downstairs. “I finished it!” she said. I smiled. “Yeah?” I answered. “It has always been one of my favorites.” “Well,” she said, “It’s my absolute favorite. Every sentence is a delicious treat.” A delicious treat. Exactly. A treat that we can devour again and again, from different perspectives and at different times in life, with different people who are important in our lives. Those varied possibilities are so absolutely delicious.
And so I found it, my list of things to be grateful for, the gift I need above all. I am grateful for my grandmother, who took me to the library every visit; I am grateful for my daughter, whose enthusiasm about books fills every room; I am grateful to the retired teacher in Miami Beach, who somehow knew that my grandmother and her family would treasure those books.
And I am grateful for books. During this difficult year, they’ve given me a place to escape. They’ve given me a place to belong. And they’ve helped me see that, whether in the dirty streets of 1920s Brooklyn or the suburbs of 2015 Philadelphia, a tree will always grow.
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