Knowing that Mother’s Day is just around the corner—and bearing in mind the fact that I published a novel about mother-daughter relationships not long ago—I thought it would be appropriate to say a few words about my mother.
How do you say just a few words about the person who gave you life, who sacrificed her sleep to soothe your infant tears, who nursed you through your childhood illnesses, who beamed proudly at your adolescent successes? Well, you choose your words carefully.
I suppose each of us could say we wouldn’t be here without our mothers, but in my case that’s particularly true. My father was adamantly opposed, on principle, to the very idea of having children. His view was that this was a terrible world, and it was immoral to bring more human beings into it. When he and my mother (who was, of course, not yet my mother) were first getting to know each other, and my mother casually mentioned that she planned on having children someday, his response was, “And I thought you were an intelligent woman!”
My mother married him nonetheless, and remained intent on having children. So intent, in fact, that she threatened to leave my father unless he at least temporarily relaxed his opposition to human procreation. Eventually he agreed, and so I came into the world (at which point, I might add, my father did a 180-degree turnaround on the wisdom of having babies, at least in my case).
I recently reminded my mother of all this when she began to thank me effusively, as she often does, for some trivial task I had performed for her—going through her junk mail, perhaps, or taking her to a dentist appointment. As I keep telling her, what I’m doing for her these days is nothing compared to what she once did for me.
She didn’t stop at insisting that I be conceived. She threw herself into my upbringing with a vengeance. (My father’s original policy on procreation was reinstated after my birth, so I remained an only child and the sole object of maternal attention.) I don’t remember much of my early childhood, of course, but to hear my mother describe it I was a tiny genius and a paragon of infant behavior (aside from my chronic distaste for sleep). I have a feeling this reflects more on my mother’s enthusiasm for me than on any actual qualities I displayed.
One thing I do remember is how my mother taught me to read. Convinced that I was a prodigy, she saw no reason to delay my initiation into the world of letters until I started first grade, as was the norm. (In the 1950’s preschool basically consisted of playing with blocks and Play-Doh, with little or none of the reading readiness curriculum that’s deployed on four-year-olds nowadays.)
Like many young children, I loved to make up stories. My mother seized on this as a way to get me to read. An adept stenographer, she would take down the stories in shorthand as I spun them out—making me perhaps the only four-year-old in history to give dictation. Then she would type them up and hand them back to me, knowing that, with the natural egotism of a child, I would be thrilled to see them in print and desperate to read them.
It’s possible I would have become an early reader anyway, since reading was the primary recreational activity in my family. I grew up in apartments where the walls were lined with books and just about every surface was piled with newspapers and magazines. We would eat dinner behind separate barriers of reading material (we had bookstands specially bought for this purpose), occasionally punctuating the meal with remarks about something thought-provoking we’d just come across. None of us ever left the house without a book or at least a few New Yorkers—something to get us through a long bus ride, or even a surprise eight-hour stint in a stuck elevator. You never know.
But if my mother didn’t single-handedly turn me into a reader, she may well have helped turn me into a writer. It took me a while to get back to the point where I was at the age of four, uninhibitedly making up stories. And it turns out that writing a novel is a lot more complicated and time-consuming than dictating fables off the top of my head. But it was my mother’s rapid-fire stenography—those mysterious chicken scratches, an alphabet I never mastered—and her devoted typing that first gave me the idea that the stuff I made up could be of interest to others, and that it could be immortalized on paper.
So thanks, Mom, for giving me the first of what would turn out to be many thrills at seeing my own words in print. Not to mention for being the most enthusiastic audience any writer could ever hope for.