Flawed as she was in most respects as a mother, she did find a uniquely personal way to provide life lessons and models for us to emulate—introducing us to the extraordinary world of books. After dinner, she might haul out a poetry anthology and read aloud, as if words were the second dessert. She doled out picture books and novels the way other mothers might bestow toys or cookies. She didn't make a big deal about it, but the stories she chose for us featured strong female characters. There was Madeline, the diminutive French girl who is "not afraid of mice"; Eloise, the cheeky 6-year-old in a pleated skirt and falling-down suspenders who turns the Plaza Hotel into her personal playground; Dorothy Gale, an ordinary girl who, armed with little more than an adventurous spirit and consummate good sense, finds her way home from Oz.
The book that made a lasting impression was the one my mother gave each of us when she decided we were ready for our first "adult novel," Lucy Maud Montgomery's The Blue Castle. It tells the story of 29-year-old Valancy Stirling, whose only escape from her odious family and colorless life is her imaginary Blue Castle. Diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and given just months to live, she then refuses to be relegated to "hopeless old maidenhood." She proposes marriage to a rough, reclusive man with a mysterious past. Undaunted by the locked room he forbids her to enter, Valancy says, "I don't care how many wives you have hanging up in it. So long as they're really dead." "Dead as door-nails," he assures her.
I inhaled that book, finishing it late at night by flashlight under the covers. It turns out Valancy's doctor mailed her the wrong diagnosis; the only thing wrong with her at the beginning was a weak will. The novel's message is clear: You're a victim only if you let yourself be.
Excellent advice, which my mother bequeathed to us through that book. I wish she'd been able to follow it herself.
I have no photographs of my mother in her final years. Among the few that were taken at my wedding, there's just a single blurry shot of her pointing her finger at the photographer and scolding him for trying to take her picture. Two years later, she was hospitalized with cirrhosis. Dry and mordant to the end, when she was in the hospital she said to Nora, "You're a writer. Take notes." She died when she was 57 years old; I was 23.
Visiting Nora's apartment recently, I was surprised to see many of the Oz books we grew up with, lining a shelf in her bright living room. I took one down and, sure enough, there was my mother's name, printed in block letters on the flyleaf.
Jealousy flared. It didn't seem fair that Nora, who'd gotten the benefit of our mother's earlier nurturing moments and more of her happier years, made off with the best of the books, too. For just a minute or two I felt sorry for myself. Then I pulled out a pen, and started to take notes.
In the years after my mother died, I told myself that I was nothing like her. I had a real job, teaching, and later working in high tech. I had a happy marriage and two great daughters with whom I loved to shop and cook and chat on the phone. I never got roaring drunk, and couldn't stand to be around anyone who was. That was all to the good. But for decades, I also thought of myself as the pretty, obedient sister, the one who preferred not to compete. So, of course I didn't write.
Then, not on a single day but over time, I started thinking about my mother, trying to get beyond the unhappiness that poisoned the last decades of her life. I dug out old pictures and tried to imagine what she was thinking. I wondered how she felt about us. About me. I collected copies of many of the books she'd given us. And as I accepted the complicated person she was, I realized that I didn't have to be the obedient, pretty one. Now I like to think I'm channeling a bit of Valancy Stirling in my suspense novels about ordinary young women who discover that they're willing to defy expectations. Willing to look behind the locked door.
Hallie Ephron's eighth novel, There Was an Old Woman (William Morrow), comes out in April.
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