Books, my Mum, and Me
My mum and I, when I was about five. I am sporting my ‘Josie Smith’ haircut. Every time I look in the mirror I see my mum starring back at me. That never gets any less weird.
When I first started primary school, I couldn’t read. I had been read to every single night of my life by at least one of my parents, and could quote entire children’s books en rote. I could recite poetry from memory and could talk about stories that I loved, but I couldn’t read.
My primary school taught me to using ‘Word Tins’. These were literally tobacco tins with little bits of card inside with various words written on them. Each week we would be given new tins to take home and practice with. When we had gone through all the tins we were aloud to take home books.
My mother thought this was ridiculous, what was the point of just learning to recognise individual words with no context of how they were used? She kept putting extra words in the tins, making them into sentences. As a result I had four times as much homework as the rest of my class, took longer to get off the tins, and was the last to get my hands on a book.
When I did get off the tins though, I could read quicker, and more fluently, than anyone else in my class. My mum had turned me into a speed reader, a skill I try to continue to hone to this day. This might have been a positive in that I now, obviously, read a hell of a lot, and love to do so, but may also be the reason behind my utterly atrocious spelling!
My mum loved books. I’ve talked before about how it was her that I talked about books with in my family. You should have seen our house. When friends from my childhood reminisce, it’s always the books that they mention. The hallways, the living room, kitchen and bedrooms were rammed with book cases. Like me, my mum read pretty much anything; she wasn’t a book snob and you could find the classics through to Maeve Binchey on our shelves.
My mum loved lyrical, intelligent prose. Her Christmas list always included the latest Isabel Allende, an author I still can’t bring myself to read to this day. She was also a massive fan of historical fiction; I Claudius was her favourite book from her youth.
She introduced me to Jean Auel, Bernard Cornwell, Thomas Hardy (after we watched the Julie Christie film of Far From the Madding Crowd together), Jane Austen, Mary Gaskell and Ellis Peters.
My Christmas present 1999, a copy of Wives and Daughters by Mrs Gaskell. The label on the parcel said “From a wife, to a daughter”.
Books we read together included the irrepressible Josie Smith, and the twee but still brilliant Milly Molly Mandy. I was the little girl in the pink and white striped frock, and always hankered after a Little Friend Susan. She also loved Pollyanna, and I blame her entirely for the ridiculous levels of optimism that my life is run by. It might have disappeared entirely for a couple of years, but now the rose tinted spectacles are back baby!
When I was 11 we went on holiday as a family abroad, the first time we had done so together. We went to Greece and she bought me a copy of My Family and Other Animals. It was the first ‘adult’ book that really made me laugh out loud, and I still love it and re-read it with the same smothering of giggles now.
My mum is also responsible for my love and constant referencing to Forever Amber. The copy she bought upon its re-release in 2002 I still have today. It is battered, and bruised. Both covers have come off, and re-attached with Magic Tape, the spine is so creased you can’t see the writing any more. Since leaving home I’ve leant it to at least five women who have all fallen as hopelessly in love with it as I did, and I’ve got at least three other women on twitter reading and loving it. That’s my mum’s fault.
My mum’s, and now mine. One day, maybe my daughter’s. The best thing about books.
One of the myriad of shit things about loosing my mum has been that I don’t get to talk about books with her any more. She doesn’t know that I’m now a librarian, when she died I was unemployed. She’ll never come to one of my book swaps; she’ll never ever read this blog. I’ve never got to share Shardlake with her, and she never got to find out how Harry Potter ended.
The last four years have been a mixture of the highest and lowest points in my life and the last year and a half of sharing books with people, both online and in real life, especially at events like World Book Night (which I’m still coming down from) has reinforced that I am doing OK. I know that my mum would be proud of me; I just wish I could share it all with her.
This Mother’s Day, if you haven’t already, if your still in contact (I know some people aren’t for perfectly legitimate reasons), and if you still have one, call your mum. Tell her what you’re reading. Ask her what her favourite book is. Talk about what you read as a kid. I can’t, you see, and someone should.
And if you are a mum, and you can, please, please, share your books. Cover your house in them. Read to your kids and talk about them. It will be literally the best present you can give to them.
Happy Mother’s Day, and even happier reading.