Of Books and Huecos

I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself by an honest diversion; or, if I study, ’tis for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.
MONTAIGNE, “OF BOOKS”

After her death I begin the customary cleaning and disposing of my mother’s personal effects. I volunteered for this task when I saw her husband Ángel wandering around the house looking forlornly at her cosas, all the objects she had collected and displayed to represent her life. Rather, her two lives: one before my father died and one after, when she moved back to Puerto Rico and eventually met and married Ángel. Two different lives.

I begin with an inventory of her books, many of which I had sent to her by Amazon.com. We liked shopping long-distance. I would call her while browsing on the Libros en Español website and read out titles. We compromised between her areas of interest and mine. She liked the mind candy of Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele. The books I wanted her to read ranged from Gabriel García Márquez (“One talkative hombre,” she would say) to Isabel Allende (“Talks a lot too, but she has great female characters. What a storyteller!”) to the contemporary writers whose stories I hoped she’d find familiar: Amy Tan, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros. She would often tease me by claiming that her favorite Latina writer was Isabel Allende. My part was to act offended so she could say, “I don’t think of you as a Latina writer, hija. You are my daughter, the Puerto Rican writer.” I loved her takes on the stories she read. She admired the strong female characters, but only if they showed respeto for their parents and did not reject their ethnic heritage. She enjoyed Amy Tan but did not like what Tan said about her mother, mainly about the broken English she spoke. That my mother had been judged less than intelligent when people heard her speak her imperfect English remained an abiding source of resentment for her. My mother’s deeply personal interpretations of the books I often taught kept me going back to them for the human experience she extracted from her reading, a counterbalance to the more detached literary criticism of academia. I run my finger over her signature, carefully inscribed inside the front cover of every book: she was a lending library to her relatives and friends, and she wanted her books returned.

She bragged that she received more boxes by ups that any of her neighbors. I found one final unopened Amazon box on her little desk—one of my choices, a Steinbeck novel, La Uvas de la Ira, The Grapes of Wrath. To give her all the books she ever wanted was a privilege I relished.

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