Just after my seventh Christmas our family moved into a bigger house. By then my youngest brother Colin had been born on Halloween and the eight of us had outgrown our modest three-bedroom. The move happened over the holiday break, amid the bitter cold, my father and uncles still young men hauling sagging, stained mattresses, boxes, and furniture into our new place. Bringing in the metal smell of snow and stamping their feet to warm them before they carried our dressers up the wide stairs. The house had belonged to my great uncle who had recently died in his fifties of a heart attack, just like my grandfather had. It was a farmhouse on three acres where he raised chickens by the hundreds and it had five bedrooms so I had my own room, a graceful open staircase, and a large front porch. Because of the former chickens our soil was black and crowded with thick worms and my mother’s flowers, including those cobalt blue Bachelor Buttons I still love, were waist high.
Our small town was an unchanging place except for the time when the JCPenneys store exploded and the fire and smoke could be seen for miles. I didn’t know it then, but eight people were killed in the explosion and two more died later from their injuries. It was a place with endless summers and forever winters with long, silent months of snow. Summers were spent roaming and jackknifing into creeks and rivers; winters on toboggan hills and skating rinks. It was an outdoor life, but besides the pleasures of that vast sky and four seasons, stories saved me. And stories were a state of mind.
It started when I was four and I’d march the mile or so to the library with my older brother and we’d haul home stacks of books to devour. I was especially fond of the enchanting picture books by Swedish author Maj Lindman and the exploits of Snip, Snap and Snur and Flicka, Ricka and Dick. Can still recall the bright-colored covers. Sometime around first grade I discovered The Box Car Children about four siblings who are abruptly orphaned and hide in an old boxcar. Their sad circumstances were conjured and re-enacted again and again. We hid in the woods, with only our wits to survive, no adults to interfere. An orphan life had such appeal in a house filled with rules and recriminations and not enough money. Then came Little Women, a gift left under our tinseled Christmas tree, and I was Jo March and started creating my own newspapers, trying to adjust in a world that didn’t appreciate bright, lively girls. My first favorite books have stayed with me, warmed me like a campfire.
Our big house held our Colliers encyclopedias, my father’s bookcase with his beloved books from childhood, the daily newspaper, and piles of library books. Nights were quiet when I was a girl, the television on for brief intervals, all of us gathered, the surrounding night deep and starlit and silent. Reading in bed before bedtime, not knowing what the weather would bring in the morning, how high the snow drifts would be.
I was thinking about this a few months ago when I was in Wisconsin, staying in the far north with my elderly parents. Winter had arrived early and icicles hung heavy, snow frosted every branch and object, my childhood re-created. In the evenings amid that snow globe world I read Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By about a crime kingpin, then switched to short stories in the Best Mystery Stories of 2014 anthology and The New Yorker. And the snow kept tumbling down and the silent, faraway stars kept watch as always.
My mother, always a fierce and outspoken woman, has congestive heart failure. She’s had heart disease for 40 years so has long ago outlived her father and uncle. She’s been hospitalized a lot in the past six months and again is in a nursing home undergoing physical therapy. She plans to return home, where my parents spend their days in their TV room with a wall of windows overlooking the frozen white lake. She naps during the day, totters when she walks, clutching onto furniture, but never using a walker as she’s been ordered to and doesn’t want to die. My father doesn’t want to let her go and after 65 years of marriage they’ve come to a place of fierce devotion.
Everyone breaks and I worry how her death will affect my father. He spends his days reading and taking care of his wife. We all send him books. At times the battering grief over losing my mother, never an easy person to love, hits me like a blow to the chest. And I’m feeling my own dull ache of aging.
Reading is a quiet thing, especially at night. But sometimes when reading, a scene or dialogue exchange or plot twist seems to shatter the night’s silence. Sometimes a single phrase or sentence will strike with poetic clarity. The solace of a good story cannot be overstated; and stories have the power to erase a broken yesterday, push away tomorrow’s worries; ease the soul’s cry or the heart’s firestorms, or wrenching worries about the future. Push away the image of my mother clinging to me like a child and sobbing while stroking my face when I left her in November. And, as author Mary Karr observed, reading is socially-acceptable disassociation.
Lately I’ve traveled far from home and back in time…through fiction. I’ve been all over Europe via All the Light We Cannot See a luminous, fable-like story about a motherless blind girl and a German orphan who grows up to track down members of the Resistance. The story bundles a cursed diamond, mollusks, the magic of radio, locks and miniatures and life under the Nazi Occupation. I lived that story. I traveled back decades with Stephen King’s Joyland, a spooky coming-of-age tale set in an amusement park with plenty of supernatural elements and carnies and carnie patois. My book club read it because three of us had heard Stephen King’s interview with NPR host Terry Gross and were intrigued. The teaser line on the cover is: Beyond the light there’s only darkness.
Speaking of darkness, I read Chelsea Cain’s One Kick about a protagonist who was abducted as a girl by child pornographers. Set in Portland, it’s a world far from my imaginings with a glimpse into horrors as harsh as an electric chair. Because sometimes darkness is needed to chase away your own shadows. The stack of books next to my bed never seems to dwindle since we’re book buyers, book collectors. Garth Steins’ latest book A Sudden Light awaits me as does the coming storm of my mother’s death. And I know this: beyond the darkness are stories to help us feel deeply, reshape our thoughts, and lead us safely home.