Friday, December 04, 2009

The Writing Runs Through It

Today at school, I had the students do a bit of SSR (Sustained Silent Reading). During past SSR's, I had been re-reading The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, a pretty good play by Lawrence and Lee, the fellows who wrote Inherit the Wind.

I had my TA re-arranging the books on my bookshelf, filled with books that I have recycled from my personal home library. The Thoreau play had been on that bookshelf, but rather than disturb my TA's progress, I just picked up a worn paperback copy of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It that was on top of the pile of books he was re-shelving.

As I opened it, I found an inscription: "To Jeff, with Love, Christmas 1992." There was no signature, but I knew my mother's handwriting.

This book had been among my favorites. Mike Gribble had recommended it to me a couple of years before. Mike, a producer of Spike and Mike's festival of Animation, was always recommending books to me. As an English teacher, I envied that Mike always had the time and energy to read so much.

He died in 1991 of cancer. I called his home phone, hoping to get information from Dickie Mo, his housemate, regarding the memorial service. Instead I got the answering service. From it, came Mike's voice, thanking me for my call and telling me about future Festival of Animation shows coming up.

In an odd way, it was nice to hear his voice one last time.

I have no idea how Mom picked this book as a gift for me. When I picked it to read today, I had the notion that I had bought it for myself shortly after Mike recommended it.

Apparently not.

Mom had taught me about loving literature. When my 1st grade teacher told her that I had trouble with reading, she supplied me with lots of comic books to get my interest. Then, when she determined there really was no reading problem, she kept the supply coming and gradually introduced me to more challenging fare. I graduated from Donald Duck to Superman to Classics Illustrated to, eventually, books that had few illustrations, if any.

Today, I did something with A River Runs Through It today that I rarely do with any book. I read the introduction, written by Norman Maclean. He talks about writing the book in part to hand down his life's story to his children--something Mom talked about doing, partially did, but never completed--in part due to her inability or unwillingness to master her computer and partly due to her lack of discipline when it comes to just sitting down and writing. She got some of it out, but not as much as I would have liked.

Before she got her computer (was it her 80th birthday?), I offered to let her come over and use mine--I'd teach her how to use it.

She only came over for that purpose once. She was in her late 70's at the time and could still get around pretty well, if somewhat slowly. She had the Parkinson's, but it was in the early stages, barely noticeable.

I got her set up in my office. While I did some house cleaning, she wrote, occasionally calling out for help. I then went out for Subway and when I got back, we had lunch.

We sat in my living room and she told me about her vision for this--"I see this little girl telling her story through the different houses that she lived in."

Most of these stories, the ones that I know anything about, never made it to print. Sometimes, when I was with her, she would start telling me about her family history. A lot of characters in her family.

Her Mother and Father were among the most colorful of them. Grandpa was an alcoholic and the primary reason they had to keep moving from house to house. Grandma contracted Multiple Sclerosis and was the main reason they eventually had to move in with us toward the end of their lives. Grandpa just couldn't take care of her by himself anymore.

Grandpa started collecting birds in our old pigeon coop out behind our garage. He had a couple of parakeets, a canary, a cockatiel, and a myna bird that said "Hello, Bill." He spent a lot of time in that coop with his birds. Drinking.

He was supposed to have stopped drinking. When Mom and Dad found out that he had a hidden stash back there, it was good-bye birds.

Grandma was bed-ridden. She could move her head and had only the use of her left arm. She read all of the time: books, magazines, the morning and afternoon newspapers (my job was to help her find Ann Landers).

Mom had hinted a couple of times that, before Grandma became bed-ridden, her marriage to Grandpa had been troubled--that there had been loomings of divorce. "I've seen some pretty ugly things in my life," she'd say, and stop there.

After Grandpa died, Grandma would tell me daily that he had loved me. After she died, their bedroom became our den, but the walls were still lined with her books, most of which never left the house until Mom did. The shelves reached almost to the ceiling.

Some of those books, along with other memorabilia (and even some trash) sits in my garage. I have gotten rid of a lot of Mom's stuff. But I have trouble throwing away anything with writing on it. Some of it is hers, some of it dad's, some of it Grandpa's--mostly notes and letters, none of it organized for posterity.

I have found old birthday cards Dad to Mom, Mom to Dad. Some unsent letters from Grandpa to people I never knew.

I haven't thrown this away because, it seems to me, that's where their spirits are.

Today, I even found a part of Mom's spirit on my school bookshelf.

After my last class, I walked up to the office to drop off my weekly attendance report when I ran into a former student--now a senior--waiting outside another teacher's classroom. He was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another book about another river. I stopped and asked him how he liked it. We talked for a little while about that book and books we had read in my class and which ones he liked better and about books in general.

As I left him, he shouted out "Thanks for teaching me to love literature!"

I am haunted by books and untold stories.


VO said...

Good post. A couple of corrections...your mom had 2 different computers and the kids were pretty small when she got her first one. My eldest was probably 12 or so when she got her first one. She was probably close to 75 at the time.

You should change the wording to "developed" rather than "contracted" because you don't contract MS, it develops. Small difference but contracting means you catch it. Sorry, I don't mean to be picky.

Do you remember that Mike CudXXX was in A River Runs Through It? The movie I mean.

VO said...

btw, she started her memoirs with her first computer. I helped her copy all of her data to add to the new one and that took a good long while due to the slowness of the computer and because she never knew where she saved things. hahaha.