Monday, December 2, 2019

My First Time: Barbara J. King

The First Book My Mother Didn’t Read

On my bookshelf at home sits Still Alice by Lisa Genova. The novel, which tells the story of cognitive psychology professor Alice Howland’s struggles with early-onset Alzheimer’s, is 292 pages long; nestled at page 265 is my mother’s bookmark. Before she could finish reading, my mother, Elizabeth King, died of COPD and vascular dementia at age 88.

Through her 80s, thanks to the crush of those oxygen-robbing diseases, my mother read increasingly slowly and with a comprehension that I could not readily judge. Yet she read, always. Her need to read was enduring and was beautiful to me.

When I hold Still Alice in my hands as my mother held it in hers, a world of mental images floods my brain, telescoping backwards in time. I see my mother reading my book How Animals Grieve, deliberately and intently, in her wheelchair at the assisted living facility near my home in Virginia. I see the moment, years ago, when I handed her my first book, based on my anthropology dissertation and written for a far narrower audience. (It was titled The Information Continuum: Evolution of Social Information Transfer in Monkeys, Apes, and Hominids—and she read it anyway!). I see the two of us browsing in a bookstore, my knowing that no matter my age, she would insist on gifting me with a book because it flooded her with pleasure. Finally I see her as young mother driving me again and again to Shrewsbury Public Library in our little town, where the universe of books truly opened for me.

In that universe, my mother held up some books as her favorites: Biographies of arresting public figures, mysteries that invite a cognitive quest, and at the top of the heap (a function, I know, of maternal pride) my own books. She read each of the five, and somehow, inevitably just happened to have one with her—cover held high in her lap—at lunch with new friends or when one of her doctors walked into the examining room to greet her.

And then she died. No matter that my mother had recently acquiesced to her physician’s suggestion that she enter hospice, and no matter that I had negotiated the arrangements; her death came as a blaze of shock to me. I’d been with her just hours before. While she did seem a little off—she was tilted in an embodied way, so that I insisted she get out of the wheelchair and into bed, and asked the nurse to come look—there was no clear crisis and she expressed no discomfort. To my forever gratitude, we parted lovingly. When only hours later the phone rang at home, I could not process what the nurse intended to convey. My mother had passed? Passed where?

Among the losses I felt as I sat with her body that night, organized the funeral service in New Jersey, and spoke over her grave, one I did not anticipate. Twenty-three months after her death, my Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat was published. Fresh grief washed over me when, just as had happened five times before, a box stuffed with copies for me arrived shortly ahead of the book’s on-sale date. Extracting the top copy, meant for my mother, I felt disoriented to the point of dizziness.

My father had been keenly smart, and together we shared many of life’s joys, but reading was not one of them. He had died years before I became a book author. I have no siblings. My husband, an avid reader and sweetly attentive to my writing, first knew me as a 30-something adult. My daughter shares my reading habits, to my serious delight; she’s 26 and later in her life, my books may occupy her intently. But who could possibly read me as my mother had read me? Who could take in the profound love of anthropology and animals inscribed in my books and yet see in her mind’s eye the young girl who pestered her for a trip to the public library for another volume in the “Cherry Ames Student Nurse” series?

In the past, handing my shiny-new volumes to my mother, each with that heady new-book smell, was a way to say thank you. Neither of my parents had finished high school, though both later earned GEDs. My father left school to join the Navy during World War II, and departed on Liberty Ship runs to Murmansk; my mother worked at a factory and took a variety of other jobs during the war. Later, my father became passionate about, and highly successful in, his work in the anti-organized-crime division of the New Jersey State Police. (Once or twice I’d accompanied my Dad on dry runs to count windows and doors before house raids on mob figures, and once in our driveway he made me back away from the family car before he turned on the ignition, a caution I only fully figured out years later.) My mother wanted most—truly wanted; she told me this often—to be a homemaker and raise me, though she also did part-time book-keeping for the town of Shrewsbury once I entered school. In our home, the furniture and rugs were threadbare in the early years, but I was given encyclopedias and other books, and music lessons. When I enrolled at Douglass College as a first-generation university student, the 28-mile drive from Shrewsbury to campus felt to me like a long-distance trek (and in so many ways, it was). Through graduate school, field work in Kenya that began shortly after my father’s death, becoming a professor in Virginia, and falling hard in love with book-writing, I felt that my mother journeyed with me.

In her final years, my mother understood fewer of the details of my participation in academic and—as my books found their audience more and more—in public discourse. Yet the year before her death, when I brought her a copy of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 which featured a piece of mine, she glowed as she read it. That, I had expected. What blew me away, what caused me to glow too, is that she read on and on from there, tackling chapters devoted to hard science with a fiery curiosity.

Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, I became impatient with my mother’s mind. Always sharp with numbers, she now pored over her financial statements and announced her suspicion that the bank was cheating her. These dark worries of deception and theft extended to the overworked and mostly very kind caregivers at her assisted living home. This was brain disease at work, I knew, yet it caused me embarrassment. Her only child, her advocate in public, I fought with her sometimes in private, and she fought back. We had always navigated mother-daughter waters with intensity, on some days battling to keep the love ahead of the exasperation.

In the presence of books, though—the world’s books, my books—we found common cause. Our sensibilities converged; we discovered then rediscovered much to share. Now, my seventh book is written and in the hands of peer reviewers. Revisions are certain to come, based on these readers' wisdom. Then will come the long wait for my publisher to turn manuscript pages into print, and for that day when a heavy box of new books will thud onto my doorstep. Already I anticipate deep pleasure, and once again, a spiking of deep loss.

Barbara J. King is emerita professor of anthropology at William & Mary and a freelance science writer and public speaker. The author of six books, Barbara focuses on animal emotion and cognition, the ethics of our relationships with animals, and the evolutionary history of language, culture, and religion. She spoke about animal love and grief in her TED talk given from the main-stage at TED’s 2019 Vancouver conference. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, NPR, Aeon, and Undark, and she regularly reviews books for NPR and the TLS. She lives in Virginia with her husband and rescued cats. Barbara tweets persistently from @bjkingape and her website can be found here.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful piece, as your pieces always are. It's these moments of sharing that I miss the most.