By A Running Brook

On this Mother’s Day, I would like to quote from as essay I wrote about my mother several years ago. It has been edited and shortened quite a bit:

My mother was a reader. I can see her clearly: I am returning home from school, walking in the living room, and there she is lying on the couch munching an apple with a book in hand. I sit down and we talk about my day at school. That was our practice every day when I returned home from school. It never occurred to me to ask her how her day had been or to inquire about what she was reading. I wish I had known enough then to have asked her.

I wonder now if it could have been the same serious literature it was by the time I left for college? Now that I have succumbed to the power of literature, I have thought more and more about her reading, when she started, what it meant to her, who she spoke with about it.

Eventually she developed a keen interest in D.H. Lawrence. He became her obsession. She read everything that he wrote, everything that had been written about him. She loved talking with me about his life and work and why I should read him more often. And then she started collecting his works, all his works, the first editions of everything.

From time to time she would part with one and send it to us for a gift on a special occasion. A carefully composed letter always accompanied these gifts, as well as the countless other books that came from the “Librarian” as she came to call herself. To my daughter on her 16th birthday, she wrote:

George Bernard Shaw said after reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “All young women should be given this book on their sixteenth birthday.” I want you to read this book very slowly and carefully word by word and page by page…. contrary to what many critics have said it is not pornography. It is rather a serious social document with several layers of meaning. It portrays the contrast between the privileged landowning nobility and the poorly educated laboring miners. It portrays the contrast between the natural world of the Forest (Eden) surrounded and encroached on all sides by the ugliness of the industrial city. Mellors, the games keeper is the natural man, or if you wish, the man who is happy only in an environment of nature, who is symbolic of Osiris born and re-born in the yearly cycle of the seasons. Connie the heroine is the symbol of Woman, or Isis, constantly seeking her mate who will provide her with the seed of her re-birth. Sir Clifford is the symbol of Death in Life Dis or Pluto—consuming, demanding but sterile—unable to pro-create and therefore a destroyer. As you can see this is a book that needs to be read more than once and I hope that over the years as you grow and become more experienced you will turn to this book and find more and more rewarding insights.

Each time I read her note I have to admit to a certain astonishment. My mother was not a Lawrence scholar. She may have taken a university course on Lawrence, but to the best of my knowledge she had never written an extended commentary or paper about his work. Yet here, in this note, is an expression of considerable erudition, understanding, and deep appreciation of the novel. No advanced degree. No graduate dissertation. Not even an undergraduate degree. And yet who would not conclude from such a note that she was a Lawrence scholar who had all three?

In 1973 she decided to put her love of books into practice by opening a bookstore of her own. It must have been a life-long dream of hers, as it is for many devoted readers. She called the store, The Running Brook:

Find tongues in trees,
Books in the running brook,
Sermons in stones and
Good in everything
From As You Like It

She created a warm and inviting store that was much too lavish for the community of nearby students. The bookshelves were made of handsome wood finishing, the walls were adorned with attractive paintings, and comfortable armchairs were placed throughout the store. She was really far more interested in poetry readings, book discussions, and chess matches than selling books.

In a newspaper article on the store it was reported that she graced the store with her two kittens who delighted in climbing over prospective buyers. And in discussing her plans for recycling books she is quoted as saying, “When the person is finished with the book and no longer has a use for it, he should bring it in so that others might also derive enjoyment from it.”

In time The Running Brook became too much for her and I am sure it was with relief, rather than regret that she closed the store. She had done it, done something she had dreamed about for years, and she had done it well and beautifully and with love.

One of her favorite literary passages, one that my grandmother placed in center of one her most beautiful needlepoints read: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. This passage from Tennyson’s Odysseus is framed and has always hung above the hearth of our family home. In a few years, I will pass it on to my son and his family and hope that they will come to appreciate and be guided by it, as I have been.


Linda said...

What a beautiful tribute to your mother. I recall reading the full essay several years ago, I believe in "Other Lives, Other Times." I was moved. It is a wonderful true story about literature's gifts of inspiration, purpose, and meaning.

Thank you for sharing.

Richard Katzev said...

Thanks, Linda. I'm pleased you recall the original essay.