Lynell George's mother imprinted a book with a hand and footprint… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
As a very young child, I imagined bliss as a house built of books, furniture made of softcover titles with wallpaper you could read and vivid color plates standing in for framed artwork. This I know must have come from growing up in a household where books reigned. We lived with them, not the other way around. Not only did they crowd ceiling-whisking shelves, but they also grew in stacks like tall tropical trees, separated into "groves" by genres.
This living library was curated by my mother, who built her life on and around books. That affection was passed to me by both osmosis and example: the excitement of entering its world, the suspension of inhabiting and trusting the story.
My mother taught English, composition and literature to junior and senior high students here in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. She set to the task with an explorer's enthusiasm; she was able to transfer that reverence of language and the never-expiring passport that a good book promised.
That deep engagement transferred to our home life. My mother carried books along to just about everywhere: our doctors' appointments, picnics, even to the movies (you could get a little extra reading in before the lights completely dimmed). Books were stowed away in the car's trunk, in the guest powder room and in a delicate stack (poems and short stories, usually) always by the side of her bed.
Reading rituals aside, it was the discussion of books that brought them alive, took them out of my head and opened the doors of the narrative, allowed new perspectives, like a new wing of rooms. She always asked about what I was reading — from the years of picture books to my college studies and beyond. Her questions weren't just a way to keep count or catalog my interests, but they also were a method to get me to think about how a book moved, to understand the power of literature, of self-expression.
Talking about books — the metaphors, the layered imagery, the object lessons — was at the core of our communication. When I was very young, she read those books, plucked from those precarious stacks, to me — not just at bedtime but also whenever she encountered a particularly moving passage, a mind-bending premise or a startling turn of phrase. She'd dip at midpage, midthought, the pleasure or surprise shimmering in her voice.
The unusual thread in all of this was that my mother, who otherwise treated her wild garden of a library with white-gloved reverence, had a habit of marking in her books. This I found extremely perplexing for someone who often described herself as an "everything-in-its-place Virgo," who patiently showed us how to create handmade covers to protect a book, how not to bend books backward and break their fragile spines. She'd trace faint pencil notes in the margins of Langston Hughes' poetry, dog-ear the page of an exchange between Laura and Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie." Or, next to these lines of Gwendolyn Brooks she simply penciled the word "truth":
We are to hope is that intelligence
Can sugar up our prejudice with politeness.
Politeness will take care of what needs caring.
For the line is there.
My mother grew up in the South in a complicated time. Her notes were a re-reading of the culture, an author's words, quiet voicings of her experiences in them. They were mappings of engagement and inquiry. They were her arguments or examples, or a new avenue of thought. If I borrowed one of my mother's books, I had to be careful. All manner of ephemera might slip free — like an elaborate, unpunctuated sentence. If she were working her way through a Toni Morrison novel, for instance, there would be her brackets, her underscores and on-the-page conversation, also clippings from newspapers — profiles, Q&As, book reviews and sometimes front-page news briefs giving the borrower a sense of the theater the book existed in. This arcana presaged hyperlinks — and I realized only recently, who would need them anyway if you ended up with a copy of one of my mother's books? You were able to read the book and glimpse the world around it.
These open-ended conversations — about books, ideas and the craft of writing — extended well into my adulthood. Now that I was writing and often writing about literary life, she enjoyed the role swap, that I was now introducing her to new writers, ideas and genres — calling her to read a passage — well turned or baldly proactive — just to hear her considered reaction.
My mother's death two years ago seemed at first to mark a certain end to this ritual of words. It was one of the more devastating layers of loss. This was a silence like no other: It was less a sensation, more like dark, rutted territory.