Read What My Mother Gave Me Online

Authors: Elizabeth Benedict

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BOOK: What My Mother Gave Me
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“You don't want it?”

“I want you to have it more,” she said. “Just don't forget to make a copy for your sister.”

photo in my office, and every day I find myself looking at it. When friends come over, they gravitate to it, studying my beautiful grandmother, my stylish young aunts, but the one they always remark on, the one small figure that catches them the most, is that haunted little girl pushed off to a corner. “
at's my mom,” I say.

I know what she has given me. Not just a deeper part of herself, but a part she had kept hidden that she was now giving me permission to show off. She gave me not just a photo I loved, but a message. Look deeper. Don't accept the version of the truth you were told.
ere are stories behind stories.
e truth is always right in front of you if you are patient enough to search for it.

Mess Up Your Mind


At three years old and at four, my greatest desire in the world, apart from red ruffled underwear, gumball-machine emerald rings, a really nice father, and a vast cache of candy, was to read for myself, the way my parents did. All those letters arranged into all those words that filled all those books, all inaccessible to me except when someone else decoded them—it was a torment.
e mysterious volumes grown-ups liked even had stories without pictures. Stories, my mother said, where your mind made its own pictures. But I would have to age into those.

I was a sheltered child, but independent. As a toddler, I insisted far too early on feeding myself. Strained turkey, beets, and carrots covered my face, spattered my clothes and high chair, and made their way under my fingernails and into my hair. My mother would carry me, still in the filthy throne, outside to be hosed down. I don't remember those disastrous feedings; I've only witnessed my mother's dramatic reenactments. Nor do I recall what she read, in the days before the Lord, but often, when she wasn't chasing after me or taking in sewing or typing for money, she begged me to be quiet and then sat alone, as long as I let her, sinking into the world of whatever book she held in her hands. After we were Saved, that book was the Bible. I remember watching her, bored and wistful, jealous of the book because it had my mother's attention and jealous of her because she knew how to disappear into the book.

She read to me, too, constantly, fluidly, dramatically—delighting with me in the stories and delighting in my delight. I remember her laughing, the warmth of her yellow eyes on mine, as we invented dialogue and subplots and worried what would happen to the characters after the last page. Insisting that we go over the same books again and again, I memorized the text, the inflections, when to turn the pages. And then I sat my mother down and “read” them to her, the tales of the very old woman and the very old man and their millions of cats, of the doctor who sailed the world with his menagerie, of the tiny duck who missed his roundup call at the fishing boat and got swatted when he caught up with it the next night. But she was quick to clarify that reciting was not reading. When I could read for myself, she said, I would understand everything differently.

to identify words without training. But even knowing the stories by heart, running my eyes over and over them as I said the lines aloud, I lacked the cognition to make the leap. Years later I saw a movie about Helen Keller, and afterward I lay awake worrying—knowing—that if I'd been born (as we said then) deaf and dumb, I would never have experienced the eureka moment that Helen did. I would never have deduced how to read or to speak, would never have exulted with my long-suffering tutor in the hallway.

I was expected to be a prodigy of some kind. My parents had married, my mother told me, not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together. We all did our part to make this eugenics experiment a success. I attempted to use multisyllabic words in sentences. I worked my little wooden puzzles under the sofa and brought them out when complete for praise. At two and a half, I started attending a Montessori school where kids were taught to read, to the limits of their abilities, as they expressed interest, and where mothers congregated after hours in the parking lot to engage in faux-polite one-upsmanship about their child's progress vis-a-vis all the other children. My mother didn't exactly blend. In her mid-thirties, five to ten years older than the others, sole Silent Generationist in a sea of Boomers, she idolized Frank Sinatra and loathed the Beatles. She pined for the days of structured education, especially phonics, and could not hide her contempt at all the touchy-feely goings-on. Worst of all, she had arrived in South Florida only very recently, with a thick Texan accent people had trouble understanding.

Perhaps she was embarrassed, too.
ough verbally advanced and socially astute, I was tiny and sickly and incredibly clumsy, incapable of cartwheels, averse to dancing, slow in learning to do things other kids took for granted, like turning on lamps, tying shoelaces, and blowing my nose. Maybe some of my peers were also learning more quickly—I don't know. Not yet three, I was, my mother claims, showing signs that I would read soon, but my tenure at the school ended, I'm told, not long after she arrived to pick me up one day and found me and the other children acting like monkeys, ooh-ooh-oohing and leaping around. When she ordered me to stop, I pretended to be an elephant, waving my arms together like a trunk to grab her cigarette.
at night my father refamiliarized my back end with his belt and it was decided that I would be removed from this hippie quagmire of permissiveness and passive-aggressive antagonism.

Conveniently, my parents had just found Jesus. So they did the natural thing; they enrolled me in the nursery school at our Presbyterian church until some more suitable situation for a Great Mind such as mine could be found.
ere I learned to print the letters of the alphabet. I learned to mold clay and eat paste. I learned that other children were allowed to watch a lot of television, and I learned to pretend that I watched it, too. But I did not learn to read.

When at last my mother found someone she deemed fit to educate me, someone who used the same phonetic methods, now out of fashion, by which she herself had learned, I was nearly five. I sat in a tiny room at a small table with an extremely large woman who showed me how to use a bookmark and to sound out words, and who had me memorize long lists of letter combinations and sounds—and it worked!
e stories in the readers turned into stories in my mind. Soon I, like my mother, could sit with a stack of books, quietly turning pages.

in English literature, even gotten her master's, yet she'd settled on this course of study almost by accident. She'd entered the university as both a chemistry major and a pretty sorority girl, a mix considered by definition incompatible in the late 1950s. Ridiculed into journalism, she dropped out of that, too, after a clash with a teacher who wanted her to “write things in a certain way that didn't allow for creativity in language or approach.” So she stumbled into literature and discovered (though she was intimidated by the wealthy kids who'd learned in high school how to write term papers on motif and symbolism) a native facility for critical reading. She knew characters and their motivations, and she knew—coming from a line of eccentric Texans and hillbillies, and having been raised by a hardworking, no-nonsense divorcée while her father married and divorced a string of wealthy widows and C-list starlets—how extreme and unreliable people could be, how mysterious their motivations. For a while she dabbled in philosophy, too. Ultimately, though, she blamed Sartre, Nietzsche, and their ilk for an existential crisis that led her to a psychiatrist, who told her she had mother issues.

In a different era, she might have become a writer. Instead she strived to be practical. She taught school. She managed an office at Texas Instruments and tried her hand at light computer programming. She married a gregarious, womanizing social-climber of an attorney who didn't want kids, triangulated out of that relationship with a soul-crushing affair, and then married another lawyer, my father, and they embarked on their mission to breed smart children together.

is project lost focus once Mom started to interpret the Scriptures for herself. She spoke in tongues and prophesied, and eventually started her own church. She forbade observance of Halloween, declared Santa Claus a pagan, and held her own exorcisms. At last she had justification for disapproving of rock music, which she deemed satanic and likely to result in demon possession.

Secular books should have been forbidden, too, for consistency's sake.
e novelist Jeanette Winterson has written of being allowed only to read the Bible and six or seven other religious volumes. She actually watched as her Pentecostal mother threw her collection of contraband paperbacks onto a bonfire. But I was still allowed, even encouraged, to read almost any stories I chose. As long as I steered clear of magic—no
A Wrinkle in Time
for me—Mom didn't look too closely at what I picked up in thrift stores or at the library. And because I often stayed home sick, and, even more often, “sick,” I spent entire weeks in bed, racing through the seven library books I was allowed to check out at a time and then nagging her into going back and checking out seven more. She did not prevent me from reading Judy Blume or Paula Danziger, or, at the age of eleven, Paul Zindel's
My Darling, My Hamburger,
a teen abortion story that still makes me flinch when I think about it.

I see now that my mother's ignorance about the books I read must have been, at some level, willful. Although she had devoted her life to God, she could not fully relinquish the smart-child experiment. She still needed me to distinguish myself in a way she herself had not been allowed to, and my increasingly undistinguished performance in math and science made clear that this would happen, if it happened at all, only through words.

Eventually my mother would excoriate my opinions and my tastes. She would accuse me of being pretentious, uppity, and condescending. She would confiscate my copies of
us Spake Zarathustra,
warning me they'd “mess up your mind.” “You'd better get right with Jesus instead of mucking around with all that pseudo-intellectual tripe,” she would say, when I moved back home after college to recuperate from an illness.
e implication was that my body had turned against me because I, by focusing on wicked, secular things, had turned against God.

Until then, though, her desire to acquaint me with the classics, to share the worlds her own mind had once lived in, trumped her conviction that any art not focused on God was a sin. On my fourteenth birthday, she took me to Books & Books, a beautifully curated shop in downtown Coral Gables, and filled my arms with paperbacks:
A Farewell to Arms,
e Great Gatsby, East of Eden, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre
. . . “You're old enough to stop reading garbage now,” she said. “You're old enough for these.”

A Farewell to Arms
may have been the first literary novel I loved. Hemingway is accused of machismo, sentimentality, blankness, and misogyny, but I didn't know about any of that then. Nor did I know anything significant about love or death or war, the central concerns of the book.
e doomed romance—like crack to a teenage girl—hooked me, but it was the weird and delicate balance between detachment and intense self-awareness that drew me to the narrator.

I believed everything he said. I thought he talked just the way someone who'd lived through trauma like that would talk.
e troops, the mountains, the hills, and the girls were all coolly, precisely observed. And when I got to passages like this, I scrawled them into my notebook: “We were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.
e world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I remember feeling that the book was telling me something about my mother, about who she was without Jesus—lonely and anxious and prone to lying awake in the darkness—and why she felt she needed Him. Reading Hemingway, reading all these novels, made me feel closer to her than actually being with her did.
ey weren't just fiction, they were artifacts.
ey showed me who this woman—who'd once laughed with me over my storybooks, who'd stood so awkwardly with the other mothers in the school parking lot—had been before she became someone who lived for the Lord.

Still, I must have internalized my mother's discomfort with the bookish part of herself—and, by extension, her discomfort with the bookish part of me. Until a couple years ago, I secretly viewed fiction and essays as a vaguely shameful hobby. Realizing this, I stopped going out after work. I ceased reviewing. I worked on my novel for hours each day. I even started to tell my mother that I was writing. At first, she changed the subject. Not out of disapproval so much as an unease so deep-seated, so reflexive, she wasn't even aware of it. Her urge to steer the conversation elsewhere was practically Pavlovian. But I persisted, complimenting her storytelling as I did, and eventually she started to dig up old books, Hemingway and Faulkner hardcovers, and send them to me.

It must be a relief to her, knowing where those stories go, finally. And it must have given her pleasure—I know it did me—to learn that we have the same favorite novelist: that religion-obsessed master, Graham Greene.

BOOK: What My Mother Gave Me
3.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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