Dame Daphne du Maurier, the English author and playwright, decries our infatuation with literary public readings by writers, noting that “writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard.”
She makes a good point, although I have to admit I love to read my own words aloud. Maybe it’s because I often read audibly as I write. Ergo, it makes sense I like to read to other people. Often my motives are mixed with shameless promotion of my books. In theory, people will buy more books if the author appears in public to read and sign them. If you invite me, I will come.
I was so taken with the sound of my own voice I made an audio version of my first book, Deep in the Heart—A Memoir of Love and Longing. My thanks to the three people who actually bought that CD, wherever you are. Who knew everything in the world is now downloaded from some mysterious cyber-place and that no one buys audio books except the technologically illiterate? Evidently, I missed that memo.
I almost missed another one.
Recently, I was invited to a book club that chose my second book, Not Quite the Same, as their book of the month. It was the eleventh anniversary celebration for the club. This diverse group of ten women met monthly for eleven years to discuss a different book chosen by the hostess. Since I am not a person who likes to belong to groups or attend meetings, I found this record remarkable. But, if you invite me, I will come.
That night I had center stage in the intimate living room where the women gathered in the early evening. The voices buzzed and hummed in the festive atmosphere as food and drinks loosened their day’s tensions. A few of the younger women sat on the floor, but no one seemed to mind. This was an informal group with good chemistry and healthy appetites. The hostess made sure everyone’s wine or iced tea glass was filled. The highlight of the meal was a fresh coconut cake baked by one of the members, but that was saved for later. No one objected, and, as the last empty plate was removed, everyone settled in for their monthly literary fix.
I had prepared some thoughts on writers and writing, so I began with those. Not too original and less than inspirational, but the women responded warmly.
“What makes writers really write?” asked one. “I’ve often thought I could write a book, but when it comes down to actually doing it, I don’t have the discipline. I think I have stories to tell from my teaching experiences. I really do. Of course, I have some others that should never be told.” The other women laughed. “What should I do?”
“That’s a great question, and I’d like to give you a simple answer. I’m afraid I don’t have one, though. I believe all of us have stories to tell and that storytelling is a primal need. I’ve seen stones in New Mexico that are hundreds of thousands of years old, and you know what’s on them? Stories someone wanted to tell. They’re told in drawings on the rock faces, but they were someone’s disciplined efforts to communicate, and I felt I was there with the storyteller. I never sat down to write a book. I wanted to save my stories and the people and places in them. They became a book because I couldn’t quit writing. Now, it’s like not being able to turn off a spigot. When that happens to you, discipline will be the least of your worries.”
I was the first author to be invited to a club meeting—ever. It was a fun night, and the highlight was reading my own words. What could be better? I had selected three different short sections from my book and read them to the group. Their rapt attention and total engagement in the process pleased me and indicated my reading was a success.
But, the evening didn’t end there. Each woman, in turn, was asked to give her reflections on my book. Naturally, with the author sitting in the same living room, they were beyond gracious. No one cast a stone.
What I found most incredible that night, however, was listening to my words read by readers. Several women read sentences, paragraphs, or whole pages of their favorite words. I never fully understood the power of writing until I heard other people read what I wrote. My stories were safe. They would be remembered and told by these women and others like them. Although I thought the night revolved around me, I was wrong. They inspired me. These women treasured words and ideas that created bonds among them. My words were now a little part of their wealth of knowledge that lived beyond the pages. I was elated.
Dame Daphne was in the vicinity, but she missed a key concept. Allow me to modify her quote: “Readers should read, and writers should listen.”
Last week I visited my mother who is in a Memory Care Unit in a facility in Houston, Texas. She is eighty-three years old and has lived there for two years. She is a short, thin woman with severe scoliosis. Her curved spine makes walking difficult, but she shuffles along with the customary purpose and determination that characterized her entire life. Her silver hair looks much the same as it has for the last thirty years, missing only the rigidity it once had as a result of weekly trips to the beauty parlor and massive amounts of hairspray.
Her skin is extraordinarily free of wrinkles and typically covered with makeup. She wears the identical mismatched colors she wore on my last visit. Black blouse and blue pants. This is atypical for the prim, little woman for whom image was so important throughout her life and is indicative of the effect of her dementia.
My mother is a stubborn woman who wanted to control everyone and everything in her life because she grew up in a home ruled by poverty and loss and had no control over anything. Her father died when she was nine years old. He left a family of four children and assorted business debts to a wife with no education past the third grade. Life wasn’t easy for the little girl and her three older brothers who were raised by a single mom in a rural east Texas town during the Great Depression.
My mom survived, married her childhood sweetheart, and had a daughter. The great passions of her life, which she shared with my father, were religion and education and me, possibly in that order. She played the piano in Southern Baptist churches for over sixty years. She taught elementary grades in Texas public schools for twenty-five years. The heart of the tragedies in her adult life made a complete circle and returned to losses similar to the ones she experienced in her childhood: her mother who fought and lost a battle with depression, two husbands who waged unsuccessful wars against cancer, an invalid brother who progressively demanded more care until his death, and a daughter whose sexual orientation defied the laws of her church. Alas, no grandchildren.
My sense is that my mother prefers the order of her life now to the chaos that confronted her when dementia began to overpower her. She knew she was losing control of everything, and she did not go gently into that good night. Today, she seems more content. At least, that’s my observation during my infrequent visits.
“My daughter lives a thousand miles from me,” she always announces to anyone who will listen. “She can’t stay long. She’s got to get back to work.”
We struggle to find things to talk about when I visit, and that isn’t merely a consequence of her condition. We’ve had a difficult relationship. Our happiest moments now are often the times we spend taking naps. She has a bed with a faded navy blue and white striped bedspread, a dark blue corduroy recliner at the foot of her bed, and one small wooden chair next to her desk. I sleep in the recliner, and she closes her eyes while she stretches out on the bed.
The room is quiet with occasional noises from other residents and staff in the hallway outside her door. They don’t disturb us. She has no interest in the television I thought was so important for her to take when I moved her into this place. I notice it is unplugged. Again.
“Lightning may strike,” she says when I ask her why she refuses to watch the TV in her room. “Besides, I like to watch the shows with the others on the big TV. Sometimes we watch Wheel of Fortune, and sometimes we watch a movie.”
I give up and close my eyes.
“I love this book,” my mother says, startling me awake with her words. I open my eyes to see her sitting across from me. She’s in the small wooden chair with the straight back. I can’t believe she’s holding the copy of my book, Deep in the Heart, which I gave her two years ago. I never saw the book since then in any of my visits, and I assumed she either threw it away or lost it. I was also stunned to see how worn it was. The only other book she had that I’d seen in that condition was The Holy Bible.
“I know all of the people in this book,” she continues. “And so many of the stories, too.”
“Yes, you do,” I agree. “The book is about our family.”
And, then, for the second time in as many weeks, I hear another reader say my words. My mother reads to me as she rarely did when I was a child. She was always too busy with the tasks of studying when she went to college, preparing for classes when she taught school, cooking, cleaning, ironing, practicing her music for Sunday and choir practice—she couldn’t sit still unless my dad insisted that she stop to catch her breath.
But, today, she reads to me. She laughs at the right moments and makes sure to read “with expression,” as the teacher in her remembers. Occasionally, she turns a page and already knows what the next words are. I’m amazed and moved. I have to fight the tears that could spoil the moment for us. I think of the costs of dishonesty on my part, and denial on hers. The sense of loss is overwhelming.
The words connect us as she reads. For the first time in a very long while, we’re at ease with each other. Just the two of us in the little room with words that renew a connection severed by a distance not measured in miles. She chooses stories that are not about her or her daughter’s differences. That’s her prerogative, because she’s the reader.
She reads from a place deep within her that has refused to surrender these memories. When she tires, she closes the book and sits back in the chair.
“We’ll read some more later,” she says.
I lean closer to her.
“Yes, we will. It makes me so happy to know you like the book. It took me two years to write these stories, but I’m glad you enjoy them so much.”
“Two years,” she repeats. “You have a wonderful vocabulary.”
The coconut cake we had for dessert at the book club meeting was deliciously sweet and well worth the wait. But, the moment with my mother was sweeter, perhaps because the wait had seemed like forever. Invite me, and I will come, and I will read. But, I’ll want you to read to me, too.