During this period of home isolation, I have had a lot (too much?) of time to ponder, and I’ve been thinking about my mom a great deal—on two fronts.
First of all, my mother, a self-acclaimed germ-a-phobe, would be freaked out by this pandemic. I’m frankly glad she’s not here to stress over this. However, she would make a great COVID commissioner. Few germs could reach her hermitically sealed skin. In the past few weeks I have found myself replaying so many of the hand washing lectures she gave me. Watching me cook, the conversation/inquisition would often go like this:
“Did you wash your hands after cracking the eggs?” I nodded in affirmation.
“But then you touched the carton.” Again, a nod. “So you recontaminated your hands.”
And on and on. It reminds me of the vignette going around the internet where the guy washes his hands, then touches the faucet, then washes again, then recontaminates. Wash, rinse, repeat. My mother could have written the script for that scene.
Mom trained my children too. Once when my kids were little, we had lunch with my friend Laura. They went to the bathroom to wash their hands, and Laura erupted in laughter when she saw my daughters emerge from the bathroom, hands in the air, little pint-sized surgeons ready for the O.R. Years before it was a thing, my mother taught my kids to sing the ABCs while they washed their hands. Recently, watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta on TV demonstrating good hand hygiene, I could close my eyes and imagine Mom rolling her eyes: “Hmph, I’ve been doing that for years!”
The second reason that this pandemic has elicited thoughts of Mom is that, from an early age, she instilled in us the joy of reading. Saul Bellow said, “People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.” That was so true for Mom and me. One of my earliest memories is walking with her down the sidewalk to the old library near our house. It was an ultra modern (for the 1970s), hexagon shaped building. It seemed that, inside, time stood still. We would go every Friday and emerge with armloads of books. As recently as six months before she died, Mom was still reading 3-4 books a week, and we spent untold hours in the library together over the course of my life.
What Mom understood about reading—and what she passed on to me and my brothers—is that, with a book you’re never alone. The novelist George R.R. Martin said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.” How many thousands of lives Mom lived and how many places she visited! These last few weeks I have taken such solace in reading—in losing myself in another place and as another person. I remember my mom’s vocal frustration with my great aunt who went a mile a minute but said she never had time to read, and I also remember how lonely that aunt was in her final years, when the work and lunches and activities and people had all faded away.
Mom had trouble with her eyes the last couple of years of her life, and her greatest fear was losing her ability to read. Trying to dispel her worry, I took her to more eye appointments than were actually necessary. Her ophthalmologist and I finally figured out that some dementia was probably impacting Mom’s ability to recognize and process what she was seeing. I remember the day the doctor leaned in and said, “I think your eyesight will be with you for the rest of your life.” I could see Mom sigh and visibly calm.
Amidst the frightening news on TV and on social media and amidst the cycles of washing and rewashing our hands, perhaps a good side-effect of COVID-19 is that it reminds us of the renewing power of reading: of being saddened, angered, frightened, challenged and inspired by words on a page.
I worry about the elderly in nursing or assisted living homes across the country—unable to see their loved ones or even interact with their neighbors. I hope their eyesight is still intact and that there are fat stacks of books on their side tables. I hope their windows look out into the Spring hues that seem especially magical this year.
“Read next to a window; the daylight is good for your eyes,” Mom told me when I was little. My hands and doorknobs disinfected, I’ll curl up where the welcome sunlight dances off my page… thankful to be the daughter of a reader.