Chapter ended all too soon for lifelong reader
- ELLISON G. WEIST
- Portland Tribune - Features
Book lover, history buff never stopped turning the pages
My mother and I shared a joke about dying.
Both of us swore that when the Angel of Death came calling, our first reaction would be: 'Hang on a minute - I'm almost to the end of this chapter!'
When the end came for my mother, on Dec. 6, she didn't have a book in hand. But it wasn't for lack of trying. For the previous 12 months, ever since she learned her cancer was terminal, she did her level best to read every great book she could get her hands on.
Since childhood, my mother, Carol Garvin, always had been a voracious reader. She passed this appetite on to all of her offspring, despite an attempt 40 years ago to read Dickens' 'The Pickwick Papers' aloud to three children under age 10. (Thankfully, she gave up after five chapters, several bouts of tears and innumerable yawns. The incident never was mentioned again.)
Her personal tastes ran to what some people would call 'highbrow' literature and serious nonfiction.
A graduate of Duke University, she majored in history and had an ongoing love affair with well-documented recounts of incidents and adventures from the past.
One of the history books she tackled early in 2007 and could not say enough about was 'Washington's Crossing' by David Hackett Fischer. Her copy was a paperback, and for months she flirted with the idea of obtaining a hardback, 'simply for the glorious pictures.'
But ever pragmatic, she dismissed this as a silly idea. 'It's not as though I'm going to be around to read it again.'
'The Looming Tower' by Lawrence Wright, an account of the events leading up to 9/11, was deemed more readable than Thomas E. Rick's searing look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 'Fiasco.' But the latter book got high marks for its attention to detail and anti-Bush sentiments.
A rabid Democrat, she dismissed 'Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush' by Robert Draper as 'too gossipy' but was thrilled by the author's kind words to his agent, her nephew, Sloan Harris.
Where fiction was concerned, Mom was, for the most part, very discerning. Well-meaning friends who dropped off chick-lit offerings were profusely thanked. Then, as soon as the giver left, the book would be banished to a section of her book table where it remained until it could be returned or donated to the library.
She enjoyed Claire Messud's 'The Emperor's Children,' although 'perhaps not as much as you did, Ellison,' and the 'devastating but brilliant' 'Afterlands' by Steven Heighton.
We were in total agreement on William Trevor's beautiful and tragic love story 'Fool's Fortune,' and I was amused when, like me, she became slightly obsessed with Charles Todd's mysteries set in post-World War I England.
As the summer wore on and her fatigue increased, her ability to read for long periods diminished.
Still, she took my advice and finished 'The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,' a haunting memoir by Lucette Lagnado, then tackled Evan Thomas' 'Sea of Thunder,' a book about the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 'which was quite good.'
I am able to quote her because of the letters she wrote up until three weeks before her death. Each week since I left for college in 1975, my mother had written me a three- to five-page letter, and I replied in kind.
By fall, her letters were shorter, but each contained at least a line or two about what book she was reading and what she thought about it.
My husband, Karl, and I spent 10 days with my parents over Thanksgiving. Two days before we left I logged on to Amazon.com in my mother's bedroom, on the laptop my father had brought her when climbing the stairs up to her office was no longer possible.
Now on oxygen and bedridden, Mom shook her head at what she called her 'foolishness,' but she couldn't resist ordering a copy of Rick Atkinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 'An Army at Dawn' and the memoir by renowned chef Madhur Jaffrey, 'Climbing the Mango Trees.'
The books arrived shortly before the hospice nurse called me at home early one Monday, suggesting that we return to Kentucky as soon as possible. We got there two days before Mom died.
On her bedside table were clippings from The New York Times Book Review, a box of Kleenex, and back issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. Along with a bookmarked copy of 'A Fearsome Doubt' by Charles Todd. She'd made it to the end of the fourth chapter.