If you are a little boy and want to test your mother’s love, color in the leaves on the dust jacket of her first edition of Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Or draw the Starship Enterprise and a Klingon battle cruiser in the sky on her first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” I did both.
In all fairness, I’m not sure my mother viewed either book as an “investment.” They just happened to be first editions because my mother was a voracious reader and bought both novels soon after they were published. Nevertheless, she made it clear when I shared my work with her that she would prefer that I didn’t use book covers as coloring books in the future.
She had, in hindsight, a pretty impressive library, and when I was a boy the books sat in long rows of floor-to-ceiling bookcases that one of my father’s best friends, Bob George, built against the dark wood paneling of our family room. And it was a pretty eclectic collection: Alongside the Saul Bellows and the Philip Roths, there was a lot of stuff that was seriously steamy. We’re not talking handcuffs-on-the-cover steamy, but plenty of passages that I couldn’t wait to share with my friends. Exhibit A? Xavier Hollander’s “The Happy Hooker.” Exhibit B? Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”
I’ve thought a lot about my mother’s library lately, and not merely because today is Mother’s Day. My most recent novel channels select moments from my childhood, and as I have talked about the book on the road, I’ve found myself flashing back to my boyhood – and, in some ways, why I write books for a living in the first place. My father always believed that my mother was instrumental in my becoming a writer, if only because she was always reading and sharing her love of fiction with me.
But here is one footnote that I never really focused on until this spring: The way it was my blond, blue-eyed Swedish mother – not my Armenian father – who helped connect me to my Armenian literary ancestry. Over the years, she bought me a lot of books, but among them were three that I recall instantly: “My Name is Aram,” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Saroyan’s tales of growing up amidst the Armenian community of Fresno, California; “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” Franz Werfel’s magisterial epic of the 4,000 Armenians who held off the Turkish Army in the first summer of the Armenian Genocide; and Michael Arlen’s memoir of his reconnection with his Armenian heritage, “Passage to Ararat” – a winner of the National Book Award.
My mother died when I was a much younger man and struggling sometimes mightily and sometimes pathetically to carve out a career as a writer. Given that she was a pretty astute reader, she must have realized that my earliest books were utter train wrecks. Even a mother’s love couldn’t have made her blind to the disaster that was my “apprentice” work. Here is the first sentence from my first published novel: “Lisa Stone slept curled in a ball, a grown woman rolled on her side into a croissant.”
But she kept giving me books. Certainly part of the reason was simply that we both loved to read. But she also knew that I loved to write. Looking back, my sense is that many of the books she gave me were presents born somewhere in that foggy intersection between inspiration and hope. They were a mother’s love made manifest in pulp and ink and glue.
Which is, of course, one of the many things that good mothers do. They prod and they pray and they hope. They are encouraging; they are the last to give up. I had one of those moms. My daughter does now.
Happy Mother’s Day.