I consider it a failure on my part, as your mother, that you are not an avid reader. You do not love books. You don’t relish their smell or understand the thrill of cocooning with a text all afternoon. You don’t have a weird yet understandable intellectual crush on the wiry fellow who owns that tiny bookshop and possesses an uncanny recall for your favorite authors.
I read to you every night when you were tiny, your bare cheek against my bare chest. I miss you already.
Anyway, as you’ll see from the enclosed, school has assigned you summer reading. My darling, what I wouldn’t give for official reading homework! Please try and embrace this exercise, especially as you disappear into the woods for a month. There’s so much to learn. About life. The world. And yourself. From books, not the trees.
For instance, the summer I turned nine, I decided to read my mother’s worn out copy of Anna Karenina. Its crinkled cover and sepia pages with tiny font called to me from her leaning tower of books.
My teacher denied that speed had anything to do with her naming convention, but she refused to rebrand me a Cheetah or an Eagle reader despite my entreaties (I could at least read between the lines!). This turtle embarked on Anna Karenina and lugged it everywhere —unread—for the better part of summer 1983. I couldn’t get past the first few pages. But I thought it made me look smart to read a grown up book, so I pulled it out and pretended to read everywhere, including Captain D’s.
As our family snaked through the labyrinthine configuration on our quest for fried garbage one Sunday evening, I casually faux-read my unreadable tome. My grandfather was busy making small talk with strangers in line when he gently backed into me, pulled the book from my hand, turned it right side up, and returned it to my open claw. I still haven’t read Anna Karenina, but it taught me something about pretending to be something you’re not.
There are articles, essays, short stories, letters. For example, my mother (your Nana) is secretive. It’s not obvious, though, with her filter-free exhibitionist verbal style. She seems at once uninhibited and relatable only to suddenly retreat into an unreachable haze moments after dazzling you with her beauty and wit.
Her hidden nature used to be one of my favorite things about her; Nana’s need to keep her ghosts hidden fueled an intense desire in me to unearth her past. Vague whispers of a tough childhood lurked everywhere. My brother and I knew to never open the guest room closet. It was mom’s sole private real estate in the whole house, and legend was that we would be buried alive by its contents if we ever opened the door.
Mom left the house one summer afternoon after we fought over some incomplete chore. I retaliated by rummaging through her closet. I withdrew a pristine Neiman Marcus hat box filled with letters and stashed it under my bed. For several nights, I devoured its contents in the glow of my reading lamp. My grandmother’s handwriting was unmistakable; she was a prolific, wide-eyed harpy. I didn’t know mothers could say such things. I eventually returned the box of epistolary rage to the closet. I continued to be a jerk to my mom, but the contents of the hatbox withered my ability to see her as one.
Where was I? Oh yes, I packed one of your summer reading books, along with the little Bible we had to buy for this outdoor adventure. Please read, but choose wisely.
I wasn’t as enthused as you, however. I was homesick before I got off the bus and hated every damn second of camp, with its communal toilets and group activities. I refused to pray out loud and never volunteered to “give testimony.” I longed to succumb to the dreamy illusions of my devout bunk mates who seemed blissfully free of worldly concerns. But it was no use. And I really, really just wanted to get back to my latest obsession: In the weeks before camp, I’d devoured every shred of information I could find on “the most hated woman in America,” Madelyn Murray O’Hare. I cautiously admitted my fascination with the atheist to a quiet girl in my cabin who also declined displays of piety. I think she ratted me out.
At the lakeside bonfire on the last night of camp, my cabin mates hoisted me up, plunged me into the water, muttered some scripture and declared me (forcibly) baptized. My retainer fell out in the melee and disappeared under the moonlit Missouri lake. Point is, be brave in what you choose to read but be very careful with whom you discuss it.
Anyway, my love, enjoy camp.
Please write and give me something to read!