I was thinking in bed this morning about 3 women who have influenced my reading life. They were pivotal to my character formation. Reading has given me the courage, and interest, to move from country to country, to become the expat princess that I am.
Herewith is an homage to the women who stoked my interest:
1) My mother. She never read me bedtime stories – that was my father’s job. But it was she who ordered Bread and Jam for Frances from the library for my 6th birthday. This was in the days before Barnes and Noble. Where we lived in Podunk, California, the book pickings were slim when I was a child. We mainly read books from the library. One could say that books, especially cookbooks in later life, are her passion. My mother read in the afternoon on her bed (an act of self-preservation) and every night before bed. She reads book reviews hungrily and continues to pass on her favorites. My mother introduced me to Joan Didion, Richard Russo, John Irving, and Anne-Marie MacDonald, to name just a few. I am a disappointment to her in the cookbook department but I do own Mark Bittman and Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks. Of late, my mother has been trying to read the bible in one year. She has already skipped to the end.
2) My grandmother, Marie, or Grandmarie to my sisters, cousins, and me. A retired librarian for Los Angeles County, California, she gave me a book or two every year for Christmas and my birthday. She always picked the right book, appropriate for my age and interest. She was never, ever off the mark. Every year for his birthday my father received a subscription to National Geographic, which I then pilfered occasionally if there was nothing else to read. Grandmarie introduced me to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lois Lenski, L. M. Montgomery, and the author of Maud Hart Lovelace. Grandmarie had a stack of books by her bed – she loved murder mysteries – and always finished a book. She never skipped to the end.
3) Mary Estelle McDowell, or Mrs. McDowell to me. She had the world’s most beautiful blue eyes. She also had a terrible limp from what I believe to be a congenital birth defect. I never asked. Mrs. McDowell lived at the very end of our street, where the street meets the forest. For many years she let my father cut our Christmas tree off of her property; when that got to be too much work, we went to the nursery like common folk. When I was very little we went to her house on Christmas Eve for eggnog and an incredible feast of cookies and fudge. She had no children. I was rude enough to ask why.
Besides Christmas cookies, Mrs. McDowell had other draws for me. Almond Roca and books. If she had time, Mrs. McDowell would invite you in for an Almond Roca and a story. If she didn’t have time for you, she’d still give you an Almond Roca. (It is my favorite candy to this day). This woman would take time out of her day to sit down and read to me. My favorites were from her childhood collection. Some of them we read twice. My all-time favorite was The Live Doll’s Busy Days, where the dolls come alive and do all the housework. Pre-Bewitched, this book was written in 1907 by Josephine Scribner Gates. I believe she also wrote one of my other favorites, Little Miss Independence, written about a little girl in the aftermath of the Civil War. I have just ordered the Live-Doll’s Busy Days as a Christmas present to myself. I found a used copy but have been unable to locate the other book at all. I thank Barnes and Noble for this wonderful service, the used and out-of-print section.
Sadly, the above scenario would probably not happen today. A candy doling older woman reading to a child. I am not sure as a parent I could let my children make that walk. There really are perverts in the forest enticing kids with candy. Hansel and Gretel is a time-tested tale after all. But much more than that, who today takes time to read to a child who is not their own? Don’t people have a million other things to do with their time? I think you know my answer.