Pieces of You in the PagesPosted: July 22, 2015
Late one night as I was drifting off to sleep my phone chirped, alerting me I had a text message. The message was from my older brother, a perpetual bachelor, and it said, “I think I just fell back in love.” I blinked a few times and squinted at the text to make sure I was reading it right then decided it was too late at night to launch into that madness. Early the next morning I got another text message that said, “With reading.” It turned out he sent the text before completing it, or so he claims (I’m side-eyeing you, bro). We had a good laugh about it but it got me thinking about my life with books.
My dad taught me how to read using The Berenstein Bears books. We sat in my bed with me literally sweating over the words until I could read them on my own without help. There was one line from The Berenstein Bears Learn About Manners, (thirty years later and I still remember the exact title!) that was particularly troublesome that I kept stumbling over and rushing through. My dad would retell this story using my five-year-old voice well into my adult years. “And she reached across the table…”
That moment though was The Moment for me. Learning to read was like the single shot from the starter pistol; I took off running and never looked back. I was fascinated with words. I read everything: cereal boxes, signs, billboards, if it had words on it, I wanted to know what they said. I remember once at a hardware store with my dad, there was one word on a sign I kept twisting around in my head, trying to decipher it. When I figured it out I tugged on my dad’s arm and pointed to it, triumphant. “Baba, auto. That sign says auto.”
My father loved my interest in reading and fed it generously. For my sixth birthday he gave me Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and Koko’s Kitten and we read them together many times. Over summer breaks, as I got older, he would assign different, heftier books for me. Biographies and autobiographies of Charles Drew, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, etc. I’d write book reports when I was done and he’d give me a few dollars as an incentive to keep reading.
I read everything I could get my hands on. With my sister I read The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High series and I’m pretty sure I read all the Nancy Drew mysteries. I had a copy of Black Beauty that I read so much the pages fell out. I frequented my school’s library so often I became friends with the librarian. When I came in she’d have a stack of books she’d picked out for me. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye: I read books for my age group and books intended for eyes and minds way older than mine. There wasn’t a story, fiction or non-fiction, that I didn’t want to read. Even my favorite childhood movie, The Neverending Story, was about books.
My memories of books and reading are always tied in with memories of my father. I always assumed I had inherited my passion for literature from him. It wasn’t until after my mother’s death that I learned she was a big reader too, even bigger than my dad. She even named my brother after her favorite poet, Langston Hughes. That knowledge makes the tender memories of reading with my dad bittersweet.
I’ve been reading to my son since before he was born. I read Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! to him while he was still in my womb. Reading to him is my greatest joy as his parent. We go to the public libraries so often that all the librarians know us by name. And now he too is learning to read which fills me with that sweet-sad feeling of witnessing him grow up. Sharing this experience with him is such a blessing, a blessing that my own mother was unfortunately deprived of.
As parents we love to share the things we love with our children, in the hopes that they will love them too. My mother didn’t get to share her passions with me. Thinking about how that must have made her feel, knowing I was experiencing all of these firsts without her, stirs up an ugly feeling within me.
My father never talked about my mother. Never shared a single story of their life together, what she liked, what her hobbies were, etc. For whatever reason I think he tried to erase her from his life and our lives. But nothing ever gets erased. There are always faint marks and shadows left behind.
Once, looking through my dad’s bookshelves, I came across a very old paperback copy of The Catcher In The Rye. I always find old books fascinating so I started flipping through the pages. On the copyright page in the bottom left corner I found my mother’s name and the date: November 16, 1966. There she was, a piece of my mother, tucked away in my father’s shelves. A shadow of her existence in the unlikeliest of places.
Holding that book in my hand, with its torn red cover and yellowed pages, was like finding hidden treasure. I, well, I took it. I felt it belonged to me. I’m glad I took it now because four years later a hurricane came and destroyed all my father’s books. I read it, not so much for the story, but in the hopes of finding more of her within the pages. There were a few markings in the pages but not much. I read till the last page, thinking that was it, then on the last page I found her again. It was dated “February 16, 1967, Thursday evening, about 6:30pm.” Underneath she’d written, “Going to the graveyard the band will play ‘When The Saints Go Marching In.’ As soon as they’re marching back home they start playing ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal, You.’ ‘No more women will you crave. You’ll be buried in your grave. I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal, you.’”
I have no idea why she wrote that or what it means but sometimes when I’m looking through my shelves I pull that book out and read the last page, just to read her words. I wrote my name next to hers on the copyright page and on the last page I copied her and wrote the date I finished reading it: “June 27, 2001 1:24am Wednesday.” I tried to think of something to write back, something strange and cryptic for someone else to find, but I couldn’t think of a thing to write so instead I tore out a piece of newspaper from that day and stuck it in between the pages.
I’m grateful to my dad for teaching me how to read and even more so for showing me the worlds that live in books. I wish he had told me my mother loved to read, it would have meant so much just to hear him mention her, but even without that, he still unwittingly gave me a big piece of her. Sometimes when I’m reading with my son he gets frustrated and says “I don’t know how to read!” as if he’ll never learn. He, like me so many years ago, trips over and rushes through the words. I tell him, “You’re going to get it. I promise you. And when you do, no one and nothing can stop you.”
Read more by Ambata, here.
Ambata Kazi-Nance is a writer and teacher living in her hometown New Orleans, LA with her husband and son. She is a member of the Melanated Writers Collective, a group for writers of color in New Orleans. She writes for Azizah magazine and Grow Mama Grow, an online community for Muslim mothers. Her short story “Rahma” was recently published in Mixed Company, a collection of fiction and visual art by women of color in New Orleans.