I’ve rearranged her bedroom to make room for some of the bookcases that cluttered our upstairs hallway. I’ve moved her computer desk to the window, so I can look out at the trees when I write, and I’ve pushed her bed up beside it, so I can alternate between reading and writing in bed (a task less possible in our master bedroom, where a too-soft mattress rewards reading with a stiff neck). Thus, in my daughter’s old room, I’ve reclaimed one of life’s joys. At the same time, I admit, I am hanging on to what most connects my daughter and myself. And so I read and write.
The room’s four tall bookcases now house a combination of what she left—two dozen dog-eared novels, stuffed animals, china teacups, early drawings, nail polish in every color imaginable—and my overstock of books, literary journals, and family photo albums. Where there’s empty space on the once cluttered walls, I hang a discarded painting and nail well-meaning gifts from my mother that I uncover in the closet: a spoon collection and display case, from my mother’s many travels; a folk print of a girl with a cat (my daughter’s animal of choice) from my childhood home. On the back of the framed print, my mother has written an inscription to my daughter.
I grab one of her novels, sit in the room where she both remains and is no longer, and read what she has read. The book, Jodi Picoult’s Vanishing Acts, half set in Phoenix (where I’ll soon travel to visit my mother), suddenly seems appropriate for its title if not for its literary depth. There is a dead mother, who turns out not to be dead after all. The father only made that up, having kidnapped his daughter twenty-eight years earlier. There are lost and recovered memories, anger and understanding, love and reconciliation. The main character, the daughter, Delia (short for Cordelia, as in King Lear), helps track down missing persons with her bloodhound. My daughter, I learn later, has given the book three stars on Goodreads.
Like me in my youth, my daughter at one time was obsessed with books, devouring a novel a day or alternating between several thick paperbacks while still able to keep all characters and plots straight. Perhaps ironically, some of my favorite memories include us cuddled together reading The Gingerbread Man (“Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me”), Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (“At last he reached his cozy house./’It’s just the right size!’ said Mrs. Mouse”), Where the Wild Things Are (“And he sailed off through night and day, and in and out of weeks”), and all of The Chronicles of Narnia (“She thinks she’s found a magical land. … In the upstairs wardrobe”). But even larger in my mind are the memories of reading novels side by side on our patio, each of us in separate but connected worlds of the imagination.
I loved her overwhelming enthusiasm for the Hunger Games series, urging me to read each and every one “NOW!” and then discussing every plot twist with great animation. I loved how she enlisted my son to co-author a mystery novel and how, every day for a month, they huddled together at the computer, arguing over dialogue and character development, before furiously typing some new epiphany. I loved how she read excerpts of my books to give me feedback on what, from her pre-teen perspective, was “thumbs up,” “like obvious,” or “no-idea-what-you-mean” confusing.
Such connections come back while I read my daughter’s book in the room she’ll no longer use, but which I now use to create (alongside whatever she’ll create in this new life of hers) and read (alongside whatever she’ll read). Perhaps such parallel experiences will continue to open up dialogue. At the least, the college professor and the first-year college student—more importantly the mom and the daughter—can still share the love of image and words. I hope so.
We lost the literary connection for a few years when we gave in and allowed our teens their smartphones. Texting, Twitter, and Facebook, then Instagram and Snapchat, eradicated the novel-a-day ritual. Yet despite my own snail-paced texting, a new type of dialogue surfaced; with my daughter’s texts came photos of in-progress art projects, spur-of-the-moment plans, sudden I-love-yous.
Though I dream of discussing Shakespeare and Monet with my daughter, today I’m grateful I can pause my typing of this essay, send off a quick text, and receive back a new photo of her basement apartment where, surrounded by her artwork, she is readying herself for college summer orientation. When she asks me to bring up a book when I visit, I know exactly where, in her old room, to look.
Yesterday, my eighty-six-year-old mother phoned to make the same request. Now halfway across the country in Phoenix, she is recuperating from a second hip replacement before returning to her new apartment at an assisted living complex near my sister’s home. When I visit, she wants me to bring a book, something I think she might like, something set in the West, her new home.
For half my life, my mother has been mailing me newspaper and magazine articles that she thought I would enjoy. Seldom did she attach a note, but the subtext was clear. The pile of carefully folded clippings—just like the texts between my daughter and me—are shorthand for what passions we share. Not unlike my reading of my daughter’s novels, they also are a desire to share an experience or reconnect with memories. “Remember this? Read this. Travel here. Experience this. I know you. I love you.” This is what my mother’s clippings have said to me for almost thirty years. This is what I also want to say to my daughter. What I need to add—“Yes, find a room of your own”—I’m learning is a bit harder. And easier.
Last year, along with the changing communications with my daughter, I lost with my mother the narrative of memory. During a hospital stay, she plummeted into a temporary but deep dementia. For days, she didn’t know my name. For months, she couldn’t focus enough to read. Even now, she can’t remember the weeks we spent together, first in her hospital room in Ohio and then during her rehab stay. And yet, next week I’ll fly to Phoenix and hand her a book set in her new town. Later, I’ll sit at the desk that belonged to her grandmother next to a painting from my childhood home, and we’ll discuss the book’s local references. In a building surrounded by palm trees, we’ll chat about what we thought worked and didn’t work in the writing. In her assisted-living apartment that came after a house full of memories shared in different eras with two husbands she loved but outlived, we’ll talk about memory, and loss, and love, and life.
When I return to our Pennsylvania house and my daughter’s old room, I’ll 0pen the window and let in the fresh, cooler air. I’ll look around and see glimpses of my daughter, my mother, and myself. I’ll add the new memories—and probably a few photos—to a room that is a bit of all of us. And then I’ll continue to write in this room that is hers, and hers and mine.
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