My mother Irene Appel, died a few weeks ago after a long struggle with various terrible ailments. She died in a nursing home where she had been for some years. My steadfast sister Sandy and my neice Emma were there to help her through the end, though she did not go easily. It was a great relief to all, including her, I am sure, when she finally let go.
Plenty of people credit their parents for making them the men and women that they are, and I’m going to do so as well. I’m a lifelong reader and now a writer, and I believe she was directly responsible, physically, mentally, genetically, and spiritually for this predilection, addiction, avocation and vocation.
Irene – mom -- was a great reader from the time she was a child. This was not normal for little girls in the early 1900s in West Virginia. She led a hardscrabble life and was passed around the family at various times. Her beloved sister Luretta was her great friend and the two little girls had many adventures together back in the hills. Mom read anything she could get her hands on, borrowing and begging books from friends and family. Books did what they do best; they took her away from her difficult life. When she was around ten they lived near Salem, West Virginia, where there was a college and she heard there was a library full of books. She walked many miles from home one day to turn up at the college library to ask if she could, please, take some books home to read. They turned her away, and she returned home that day bitterly disappointed, exhausted and with bleeding feet. She had walked the entire way barefoot. There are many stories she would tell about this hard life, though she never complained.
When she became an adult she worked and could buy her own books. When she married, she raised us kids with one hand while in her other she held the book she would put down only long enough to pick up the next when the first had ended. Our enduring memory of her is her sitting in the living room, or at picnics, or riding in the car or being anywhere else while reading a book. When we kids learned to read, she would often finish a book, no matter what our age, hand it to one of us and say, “Here, this is a good one.” We read everything early and learned to especially love the big, fat novels of the day, waiting every year or so for the new James Michener to come out, whereupon she would buy it (in paperback). She would read it and then pass it to me and so it would go, around the family and eventually around the neighborhood. We read all the classics, devouring War and Peace, Dickens, legions of 19th century novelists along with Mickey Spillane and Peyton Place. (That one she didn’t hand me; I found it one day stashed among our many volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia, a hiding place she knew was near perfect because we kids hated looking at the encyclopedia and would never go there unless school lessons demanded it.)
So we all read. She had a rule, that if there were two for dinner you could bring your book to the table. Because my father worked away from home this was a pretty frequent occurrence and sometimes when there were three we went ahead and broke the rule anyway.
When I was young and came down with the mumps she disappeared one evening and showed up at my bedside with a Tarzan book. It turns out that she had the entire works of Edgar Rice Burroughs stashed in the attic, a fleet of red bound hardbacks that looked like they had been stolen out of a library. And maybe they had been. During this illness, which I stretched out as long as possible, mom and aunt Luretta had a long discussion about whether I was old enough to read H. Rider Haggard’s novel, “She” which they felt was slightly scandalous. I devoured it. I could bemoan this time as a lost golden age, books like all the Tarzan novels now unread, but the young have Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket and vampires and any number of wonderful popular novels to consume. What I am trying to say, is, it’s not about the book, it’s about the reading.
So I grew up surrounded by books, every kind of books. There were no differences made between the literary and the popular: We Read Everything. When the kids got older, it was we who would read a book and then hand it to mom. She became a huge science fiction fan, though historical fiction, mysteries and immense family sagas remained her favorites. When I became a book reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly, in her eighties, I would take her boxes of review copies which she would read and then put out on the shelves on the apartment building where she lived.
She was very proud when I became a writer. The dedication in my first book was: “To my father, who always finds the things I need, and my mother, who let me read at the dinner table all those years.”
Her goal in life was to remain on her own in her apartment until the age of ninety, have a big party to which all the family came, and then to die that night in her sleep. It was not to be. She made the birthday, we had the party, but she didn’t die. A year or so later she woke up in the middle of the night and found she couldn’t get out of bed. The next morning she struggled to the phone and called the paramedics, they came and collected her and took her to the hospital. She was always upbeat, and I have no doubt that she made jokes throughout her examination. By then she had been able to walk, sort of, although she had a great weakness in her right side. The emergency room idiot doctor sent her home saying this weakness had been caused by her blood pressure pills. That night she had another stroke, this time it maimed her for good. After months in and out of hospitals she was put into a nursing home. She was crippled and in a wheelchair. By this time she was also going deaf and had macular degeneration. And the worst part? She couldn’t see to read, and she couldn’t hold a book in her crippled hand. She would never read another book. Now she truly descended into hell. Yes, there were moments where she sparkled, joked, spoke of the old days with fondness and seemed -- not like her old self, she would never be able to be her old self -- but cheerful. Somehow it seemed to me she was doing this more for us than herself.
Her nursing home was truly a fine place, staffed by caring, trained individuals who had her best interests at heart. My sister guarded her like an attack dog, ready to battle any slight or injustice. Mom lived like this another five years. Her mind, used to soaring into fiction’s highest skies, was earthbound, trussed and shackled by cruel reality. When she couldn’t read stories, she made up stories she thought were real: someone was using her bathroom to shower in at night; she found herself walking down lonely country roads; she searched for her mother; and there was always Luretta, where was Luretta? Her best day, her best day, was a nightmare of sorts. After a lifetime of freedom, she was imprisoned in her failed, broken body.
We tried everything to release her: read to her, tried to make her happy, but nothing worked. There were no answers. I will tell you, Dear Reader, that there are no answers. If you are in this situation, or are going to be in this situation, beware, I can give you no good advice. Because there is no good advice.
Don’t talk to me about any God; I don’t want to hear it. I’ve heard all the “reasons” she was made to suffer this way, and I reject them. I reject them.
But let me indulge in a fantasy. After all, I’m a writer, this is what I do.
Mom is in heaven. It’s just like in the cartoons, all fluffy clouds and halos. She’s sitting on her cloud and next to her is James Michener. He’s telling her a story. A wonderful story. She nods, as if she’s listening. In her hand, her good hand, she’s holding a book and she’s reading while Michener rambles on. Oh look! It’s the new Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. (In this world she loved Tartt’s first book, A Secret History.) Michener doesn’t notice that she’s not really listening. Look at her. She turns a page.
She can see.
She can read.
She is happy.