Last week I took a late afternoon walk on the riverbank boardwalk near Smoke on the Water. On a bench beside a willow oak, a mother and son sat quietly reading books. Books! The original virtual technology. The mom read Alice Hoffman’s’ “The Rules of Magic.” Her barely school-aged son paged through David Macaulay’s illustrated children’s classic, “The Way Things Work.”
My phone alerted me to a new text message. I checked, hoping for a pithy comment from one of my brothers about this month’s book club selection. We’ve kept the book club going for nearly two years. My brothers and I have diverse tastes in reading. I prefer classics. My engineer brother prefers fast-paced contemporary detective novels and self-help, uplifting stories. My communications technology brother prefers fantasy and horror, and is an avid fan of Stephen King (his stories, not his politics).
“Toilet paper at Harris Teeter?” my wife texted.
“Not today,” I replied.
“Toilet paper,” I grumbled in an old-man voice loud enough for the young mom to hear. “Global pandemic and the first thing people stock up on is toilet paper.”
The mom smiled and held up her book, a New Hanover County Public Library hardback edition. “Not me,” she said. “Before the libraries closed their doors, I took out as many books as I could carry.”
What a wise young mother. I can’t imagine my mom clearing the shelves for toilet paper, but I can remember her carrying armloads of books back from the Shunk Street branch of the Philadelphia Public Library. I smiled back at the mother and son.
The late afternoon breeze kicked up a frothy chop on the river. The sun wouldn’t set for hours, giving mother and son plenty of time to travel wherever the books would take them.
Whether my brothers realize it, Mom started our book club when she trudged us to the neighborhood branches of the library. She would pick up self-help books or detective novels for herself, and whatever Dr. Seuss or science books she could find for us. The Shunk Street branch seemed cavernous and holy to me. The musty smell suggested a distinct possibility that some grownups actually knew something, which was reassuring.
Anyone who knew my mother knew she was chock-full of flaws that sometimes threatened to consume her and those close to her. Her ability to teach and advocate for her three sons was a distinct strength. While Dad worked overtime to feed us, Mom read and taught. At pivotal times, she advocated for us in an educational system seemingly built to make round pegs fit into square holes.
One brother was a bit of a horror show for teachers. The elementary school wanted to put him on medication almost right away because they thought he’d get arrested before he got to high school. Mom made sure my brother read and did his homework. She didn’t use medication, but she did use teaching strategies with all her sons (some may not be considered wise or even legal today).
My troublemaking brother (the Stephen King fan) earned a bachelor’s degree and has been working in the tech field for three decades. He is now working on a government contract to develop solutions that allow public-sector workers to work from home more effectively.
Teachers thought my other brother was mute and wanted to make him repeat first grade until he said something. Mom insisted her son knew how to read before he started school. (We all did.) He would talk when he had something to say.
My silent brother earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and an officer’s commission in the Navy. He is currently making speeches at Toastmaster’s Club and working in the public sector to keep the water clean in Indiana. He reads detective novels and self-help books in his spare time, just like Mom.
In fact, one of the early books I remember Mom reading was the self-help classic “I’m OK—You’re OK.” Reading through it after Mom finished may have started me on the road to becoming a psychologist. As doors open around the country, I hope we head to the public libraries and local bookstores and remember our first teachers kindly.
Mom would be proud of our brotherly book club today. All I can say is, “You’re OK, we’re OK,” Mom. Thanks for stocking up on books instead of toilet paper!