Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Mama, books and death"

What better tribute can a person whose life has been defined by a love of books receive than something like this?

Tina McElroy Ansa, who lost her mother last week, celebrates her life in this special piece:

One of the first memories I have of my mother is of her sitting in her pink reading chair in the living room with a hard book in her hand. At age 5 or so, I’d come running up to show her something I’d found out in the yard.

She would stop, look me in the face and say softly yet sternly, “Not now, baby. Mama’s reading.” Then she would go back to her book.

I would stomp off for a couple of minutes, probably seconds, and return with the same request, “Hey, Mama, look at this leaf I found. Smell it!”

She would put the book down in her lap again, her manicured finger holding her page, and patiently, slowly repeat her rule.

“Not now, baby. Mama’s reading.”

And I would storm off again, wondering what magic was there in between the pages of those books. Because of my mother, I soon discovered that magic.
My mother fed us wonderful books in just the way she fed us fried Silver Queen corn in summer and chitlins and rich vegetable soup in winter.

This sharing of books was our family practice initiated by my mother until her death. While I was on the road promoting my books, I was always on the lookout for books I know she would enjoy. My friend Blanche, a bookstore owner in the San Francisco Bay area who made friends with my mother when Mama and her childhood friend, Aunt Mary, joined me on book tour there, made sure all the really good authors who came through her stores signed copies of their books for Mama. Just weeks ago, one of Mama’s granddaughters shared the memoir of Diahann Carroll with her, and they discussed it over the phone.
My mother gave me words. My writing taught compassion. My mother died. Fifty thousand Haitians are killed. And I know how it feels to mourn for all of them and each of them.

Universally and specifically.
Avid readers already know how books can positively shape a person's character and life in ways that non-readers will never enjoy. Nellie McElroy understood that. She dearly loved books and reading and she gifted successive generations of her family with that same love, in the process creating new readers that are likely to think of her every time they open the covers of a new book. How great is this?


  1. What I take from a quick read of this story is that the book was more important than the little girl. Kids do go to school and do sleep. Seems kind of harsh to tell your own five year old to go away, you're reading. But that's just me.

  2. You know, that never crossed my mind. I see what you're saying but I looked at it as a firm, but gentle, lesson to a child about treasuring reading time or a private moment, learning a little self-restraint, etc. That may have been expecting a lot from a five year old. It does seem to have worked that way in this case but it probably would have been different for other children.

    I still believe that some people are predisposed to be readers in a genetic kind of thing. So maybe this kind of "encouragement" works only on those that would have been readers anyway.

  3. Sam, maybe it's because I look at reading as a luxury and not a necessity. It would never occur to me that one should let a child interrupt a father repairing a furnace, for example. Or a mother changing a baby's diaper or pulling something out of the oven.

    But reading - reading is fun. And fun comes after necessity. If you are at home rearing your children, then pay attention to your kids. Or at least look up from your book and acknowledge your kid. It only takes a second and then you can return to your book. Maybe that's what bugged me so much: all she had to do was take a few seconds away from the book, acknowledge the little girl, and then return to the book.

  4. Good points, all, Factotum. I wonder if it's a gender difference of opinion. :-)