Wednesday, April 2, 2014

B is for Bleak House

This is how I remember my mother: sick, sleeping, sewing, or reading. My job as a child was to stay out of her way, to be as quiet as possible, preferably reading a book of my own. If she did ever come close, it was with a mouthful of pins, both literal and metaphoric, and I was terrified of her.

Now before you think this is the start of a pity party, I want to assure you it isn't. The reason my mother and I never bonded is because I didn’t live with her full-time until I was five and going to school, and I left home at eighteen. 
But during those few years we had together, the one safe topic to share was books. I especially waited for those mornings when my mother liked to sit at the breakfast table and talk to my father about whatever book she was currently reading. One book I remember in particular was Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Listening to her speak, the title alone captured my imagination, describing what I believed to be our own house: bleak, cold, and very lonely. Even more disturbing, however, was that as my mother described the character of Jo, she couldn’t stop crying. 

I wanted to know more—about the story and her tears. One afternoon while she was napping, I started to read her library copy of Bleak House in secret. It wasn’t any good; I couldn’t understand most of it, but I did figure out that Jo was a street child, unloved and unwanted, a boy who cleaned the streets and helped a woman who had abandoned her own child.

Two years later, on a family visit to the UK, I saw a copy of Bleak House in a village bookstore and bought it with money my grandmother had given me for the trip. (My grandmother was a very loving and generous person. She had a chihuahua, painted in watercolor and oil, and drove a white Mustang with red leather seats. And we had FUN. So, you see, it wasn't all darkness . . .) Anyway, that year I was fourteen and I could finally appreciate Dickens’ style and flair. I also realized how much humor was in the story, and how valuable it was to laugh in the midst of chaos and/or despair. Yet it was only a few days ago when I thought about writing this post that I also realized how strange it was that I should discover a book about an estranged mother and daughter through my bitterly-depressed mother. There’s an irony here I want to explore further one day. Maybe this post is a good start.

My mother and I were never able to share much of anything in her lifetime; in the end she chose to live over 7000 miles away from home, but her love of reading has been her most important gift to me. Reading has given me some of the most wonderful moments of my life, carrying me through both the bleak and the sublime—and I am grateful for a life well-read.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes people lack in the areas we expect them to shine, but still give us unexpected gifts in their own ways. :) I've never read Bleak House, but I'm going to add it to my list.

Charlotte Fairchild said...

I am going to look Bleak House up on Wikipedia! I have too much to do this month to read any book! April 9 is a book signing at President Carter's Library!
Thanks for the story, Valerie. I love your writing!

Valerie Storey said...

Wow--appreciate these nice comments! Highly recommend Bleak House for when you have a good, long block of time and no interruptions. By today's standards Dickens may be full of coincidence, author intrusion, all the things writers are told "not to do." But regardless of modern literary convention, he's still the master of characterization with a deep understanding of the human soul.