My Mother’s Soul

     Mother’s library was sacrosanct.  We were allowed inside, but with restrictions.  The first and lowest shelf held our books, kid books with tall, narrow spines and lots of pictures.  The second held toys, knickknacks, and other unbreakables.  The toy shelf was a barrier between the books we could touch and the ones we could not.  Mother told us that books were very special.  They were doorways to other worlds and we had to treat those worlds and their inhabitants with respect.  Maybe that was just something she told us, but I think she believed it.  And even though we were allowed in the library and called it “our” library, we all knew that it actually belonged to Mother. 

     She filled the dark oak shelves with all kinds of books, many of which she said she would “get around to reading eventually.”  It was odd because some of them she read over and over again.  I’m sure a few she could recite from memory.  Most of it was fantasy.  Some was very good, famous hallmarks like Tolkien, Pratchett, Gaiman, Rowling.  Others were just as good but never got much attention like Friedman, Hambly, Lackey, Green.  An entire shelf was dedicated to books by her friends.  Some were just silly, trashy kinds of fantasy and cheap sci-fi, but she loved them anyway.  There were also classics:  Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Brontë, Burroughs, and reams of poems.  Her collection of comic books and graphic novels was as pristine as it was immense.  Mother was always very careful with her books.  She treated them as if they were the last of their kind, the only copies in the world.  She taught us to respect books, all books, whether they were ours or not.  Very little angered her more than the wanton destruction of any precious tome.  

     We each had our own little libraries in our rooms.  Mother encouraged us to gather books we loved and put them on our shelves.  The library was her retreat, so she liked us to have access to books when we wanted them without having to bother her.  Mother never expected to have kids.  I don’t think she really wanted to.  She loves us, but she loves books more.  And that’s okay.  I think I’m a lot like her.  I don’t know how she managed when we were small.  Mother always tried to smile and be patient, but I could tell when she was tired or at the end of her rope.  Her smile would get brittle and not reach her eyes.  She would take deep breaths and her words would slur a bit.  Sometimes she had to walk away, to another room, or even outside, regardless of the weather.  Anywhere we were not.  When we got older, she had the freedom to walk into the library and shut the door.  Sometimes I worried that she wouldn’t come back out, that we would be abandoned in favor of people who did not exist.

     She always did come back.  But for Mother, those people did exist.  I think they were more real to her than real people.  Most of the time she floated, half effervescent, not quite attached to this world.  People might be surprised that I describe Mother this way.  Strangers always described her as being practical, sweet, very down-to-earth.  Mother tended to over-compensate.  She’d dig her toes into the ground and hold on as long as she could to get things done, and then she’d waft away again, silently retreating into her library where things were sane and safe.   

     I know that Mother loved us, even though we were an intrusion into her quiet, ordered, not-quite-attached life.  And we loved her, even though sometimes we needed more love and attention than she could give.  She tried very hard, but I don’t think Mother could really connect with people.  Or maybe she connected too much and it hurt, so she drew back to protect herself.  It got worse as she got older.  Her exhausted, fragile smiles around outsiders grew more and more frequent, and she needed more and more time shut up in the library to recuperate.  I think she lost patience with the outside world and the people in it.  Very few were allowed within the sanctum that our house became, and even fewer ever made it into her library.  To be invited in was a great honor.  To touch a book was extremely rare.  To be allowed to borrow one… that was a miracle.    

     Now that she’s gone, we don’t know what to do with her books.  Even though Mother was strict about handling them, she always encouraged reading.  “Books are meant to be read,” she said.  “That is how they stay alive.”  The books should be read, but they are Mother’s books.  They don’t belong us or anyone else.  They were her lifeline, her sanctuary.  Taking them away feels wrong.  But locking them away also feels wrong.  So perhaps they will stay here, in this house, and we will bring our children to see Mother’s library, and we will tell them stories about her and her books and encourage them to read while admonishing them to be careful, oh so careful, because they are touching and turning the pages of our Mother’s soul.
By Hikari Katana