I’m trying to recall the first book my grandmother offered to discuss with me. It may have been The Little Colonel, or it might have been Freckles. I’m almost certain Christy came later, but the order doesn’t really matter. In any case, she would sometimes recommend a book to me, and tell me we could talk about it once I was done.
I don’t remember the details of the initial conversations, but we did continue to trade books off and on when I would visit. Once I got to be an adult, I would mail Grandmama a copy of a book once or twice a year, and she would send letters suggesting other titles I might like. I still remember the phone call when we discussed The Help. We talked for nearly two hours about the maids that had had an impact on her life in one way or another.
That was about the time Alzheimer’s was taking hold of Grandmama and walking her away from us slowly so I hardly realized it. We discussed a couple of other books after that, but soon it seemed she wasn’t really able to read anymore, or not all the way through a book.
It was harder to talk on visits, once we didn’t have shared reading. And once she stopped always knowing who I was exactly. At my cousin’s wedding two years ago she saw me and said, “Now, who are you?” My aunt reminded her that I’m Little Catherine. I’m always Little Catherine in family gatherings, no matter how old I get.
My grandmother looked at me and smiled so brightly at that, and said, “Well, you turned out beautifully!” Like it was such a happy surprise to see me all polished up.
On the last good visit we had, about a year ago, we looked at photo albums together. She didn’t know who I was, but she remembered stories from the pictures. It was so sweet to see pictures of her when she was young and happy. And to read notes from her friends during World War II when they were so brave and idealistic and certain that their friends and brothers were dying for a great cause.
We bring all of that to what we read, you know? Who we are and where we’re from and what shaped us. I wish that I had really known my grandmother as an adult, before she got sick. I’d love to talk to her about what it was like to have four daughters and one son back then (the same family mix I have now), or how her life changed her perspectives on what she read. In my memory she’s a pretty complex person–fun and vivacious but also a person of…shall we say…strong will. There are pros and cons to that inheritance.
Even though I didn’t get to be friends with her as an adult–maybe that’s never how generational ties work–I’m so glad that we read books together. I wish we had done that more. A big reason I keep writing book reviews is in hopes that my kids (and maybe grandchildren, down the line!) will someday know me a little better, or have some insight into who I am as a person, not just as Mama.
My grandmother died this week, at 93 years old. Even though I feel like I’ve already been missing her for years now, it’s still hard to know I won’t see her again when I drive through the mountains.
So I think I will go home and pile the kids on the couch and introduce them to some of those old favorite books. And I will tell them how I read those stories with my grandmother, who was complicated, but pretty wonderful.