Appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press – December 23, 2011
VANCOUVER — I sat down to write about the greatest gift I’ve ever received. But, like a river in flood that carves a new channel, it became about my mother.
Here, hard-eyed, I declare a sour disposition toward columns about (a) one’s mother and (b) books, the gift my mother began and in death still gives.
Mothers, books: two topics that usually stick in the throat with cloying sweetness. The man who, damp-eyed, states he loves books is as suspect as the one who announces he loves women. All of them? I’ll kindly show you duds of both.
But — the gift.
My mother, Bertha Irene George, tiny and plump in my memory, grew up in small-town Manitoba and had a Grade 10 education.
Born in 1908 in the dawn of movies, which she adored, her own reading was monopolized by Photoplay, Modern Screen and Modern Romances — evil literature hidden under a sofa cushion where I was sure to find them.
But, though my brother Gary and I were to scratch out a living as the fable-writers called newspapermen, our mother was incomparably the best storyteller.
She made a fairy tale of her hometown, Morden. Too late I realized that under her open-hearted, child-like joy with life’s smallest diversions and comic scenes was a gift for concealing disappointment.
But that’s a topic for another day that will never come. Back to that gift.
One day, she took me to the library, and afterwards, descending the imposing stone balustrade (it was a Carnegie), I stopped and stared at my new card, excited.
I knew, as children know before they know, that it would open locks.
If I stand on my tippy-toes and reach way, way up to the top shelf, like the child I have never outgrown, I can pull down my earliest remembered books:
Animal Stories by Thornton W. Burgess. I wrote to his Springfield, Massachusetts home, he sent an autographed picture and handwritten note, and I was sure an author was the most glamorous person on Earth, announced by a flourish of trumpets, petals strewn in his path, his name whispered with awe when he strode the streets or entered a café.
The bitterness of rejection, the publisher’s harsh contract, never occurred.
Next was Ernest Thompson Seton. One of his claims was that he was “naturalist to the government of Manitoba.” The last paragraph of his wolf story, Lobo, King of Currumpaw, I can still quote after a drink or two.
The bulky Animals of the World was my Christmas present, age eight, in 1942, and around then, P.A. Taverner’s Birds of Canada, never surpassed in magisterial depth and tart opinion.
Sometime in those days an anchor-weight Underwood appeared on the dining room table. Mother’s doing?
One day, alone, I cautiously approached it as if it were a trap. So it was. My fingers were caught and have not yet been released.
I began reviewing books at age 11 or 12, a canny book editor in my hometown, Rhys Crossan, deciding that if you want a boys’ book reviewed, you should send for a boy to do it. My memory is that all my reviews rigidly began: “This is a book about…”
My mother typed my handwritten words for submission to the editor and doubtless improved them.
She was an encouraging booster, a backer, but never specifically encouraged writing, reading, or anything else.
Parenting and other paid, pop-psychology experts hadn’t been invented yet, thank God.
My Winnipeg-born father, a Canadian Press teletype operator and mechanic, said even less. Maybe both thought I’d grow out of it, like little boys who announce they’re going to be firemen.
Accidentally, I slowly created a malignant cornucopia of books — five bookcases within my sight as I write, three more plus 13 unwieldy stacks in my bedroom, books on my bed, books crawling up the steps to my office, and newspapers and magazines (and clumps of my own columns back to 1958 that want to be books when they grow up).
I was recently invited to speak to the North Shore University Women’s Club in suburban Vancouver and was presented with a book. I gave gracious thanks, but drew a loud, knowing laugh when I stated candidly that my wife would rather I came home with another woman than with another book.
I blame mother. Who, I trust, is reading Photoplay somewhere.
© Trevor Lautens, 2011