One of my primary goals as a mom was to give my girls a love of reading and to instill in their minds and in their hearts a deep appreciation for books. My older daughter was born with her face in a book, so I cannot take any credit for accomplishing that goal with her. My younger daughter was born with a super-charged turbo engine, making sitting still for long periods of time impossible. Mack had so much energy to burn that on weekday evenings, I often found it necessary to take her and a stopwatch out to the sidewalk in front of our house and then dare her to beat her record sprint to the end of our block and back. Only when all of her energy was exhausted could she sit still at the dining room table long enough to eat her dinner. So obviously, spending quiet time with a good book was of little interest to a toddler thundering through life at the speed of light.
For Mack, books were no competition for the backyard fort, the scooter, the bike, or the basketball hoop. Therefore, I concentrated my efforts to make her a reader after the sun went down and after much of her energy for the day was already expended. Whereas her sister had sat with me for hours with piles of books, word flashcards, and workbooks, I had to teach Mack on the run. I sat on the floor of her bedroom, holding the same flash cards that had enthralled Savannah. I would yell out words and definitions; and as Mack would dash by me bouncing a big playground ball or chasing a Nerf football she had flung across the room, I worked to improve her vocabulary. Maybe she was too wild to read just yet, but perhaps I could teach the child some new words. Mostly, she ignored me; but sometimes she would pause, violently poke a flashcard with her finger, and scream out the word it contained.
This vivacious little kid had to be mostly exhausted before she would train her eyes on actual book. But there were times when she finally tuckered out at the end of the day or when she was feeling warm and cuddly after her evening bath, that she would tolerate a short story if I read quickly enough and turned the pages fast enough. Although I deemed it a far too infrequent activity, I did get some precious, snuggly reading time with my Macko when she was very small. I was also heartened when I would tiptoe into Mack’s room at night and find her asleep with an open book. As I paused to breathe in those sweet scenes of my crazy girl passed out with a book, I secretly hoped that the stories within those pages were seeping into her dreams. I quietly wished that those pages were becoming comfortably familiar. And I confidently anticipated the day that those books would become at least as important to her as basketballs.
It probably happened more gradually than I remember it, but at some point when Mack was in fifth or sixth grade I noticed that she was reading a book I had purchased for her many months beforehand, that she was now packing books for car rides and trips, and that she was demanding her own copies of the Harry Potter books that her sister had already collected. Mack may have been a late bloomer where reading was concerned, but by the time she reached high school, books became more important to her than basketballs. Not only had she become an avid reader and a passionate lover of books, but she had also became a vocal proponent of the books she loved. She enjoyed talking with friends about the books she was reading, and when she encountered a lack of enthusiasm from them, it only steeled her resolve. One night I overheard Mack discussing with her high school boyfriend Abhinav the strong female character that Stieg Larsson had written in The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo. Although Abhi seemed uninterested and was reluctant, he left our house that night with Mack’s copy of the book. But he did read that book for Mack, and he had to admit to her later that not only had he enjoyed it, but he had appreciated it, too. This pleased Mack a great deal, more than I suspect she ever revealed to him. She was generous with her books and always happy to share her favorites with friends. Two of Mack’s dearest friends now cherish the last books that she had lent to them. Brytani has Mack’s copy of Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Kailey has The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the very same copy that Mack loaned to Abhi.
This past week, with the publication of my new book, a biography of Mary Lincoln, I have thought a great deal about Mack and how satisfying it is to know that books were a joy in her life. I am reminded about how proud Mack was when I published my first book about antebellum juries, even though she relentlessly teased about how stuffy and scholarly it was. When I had asked Mack to pose with that jury book, she gave me what is now one of my most favorite photos. I also recall with a smile how much Mack inspired my work on my second book. She was so filled up with excitement and intellectual curiosity as she was blossoming into a scholar during her sophomore year of college, and I was enjoying beyond words Mack’s discussions with me over the books she was reading in her courses. I was in awe of her growing intellectual talent for analysis and her critical eye; and her enthusiasm rubbed off on me. As I worked on my book, Mack and I chatted frequently about it, and she provided a great deal of comic relief when I needed it most. Checking in periodically, she would ask me, “Is Mary dead yet?” I’d laugh and tell her no, that the Lincolns were still in Springfield, or the Civil War had only just started. When I finally finished the first draft of the book, I burst into tears—relieved, I suppose, that the hard work was ended—and called Mack to tell her that Mary was dead. She responded, “Mom, why in the hell are you crying? You should be celebrating Mary’s death with a Guinness or two, instead.”
The publication of my new book has summoned clashing emotions with which I am struggling to cope. I am proud and excited about the book, but I am miserable knowing that Mack will never read it. Celebrating my first important achievement without her is devastating, and I yearn for a picture of Mack posing with Mary Lincoln, providing me with another perfect snapshot of her humorous take on the world. I wish I would have expressed in words how important that her support and good humor were to me, and I wish I could tell her now that she was an inspiration to me. Instead, I must focus on the fact that I am grateful that books became an important bond between us. I must focus on how honored I am that such an amazing young woman was supportive and proud of my accomplishments. And most importantly, I must focus on the simple truth that no matter how much longer I live and no matter how many books I write, Mack will always inspire me.
Sitting still for Grandma Marie…
A very random sampling of a few of Mack’s favorite books…
Something Queer is Going On
And the Relatives Came
Sheep in a Jeep
Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld
The Harry Potter series
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
Anything by Augusten Burroughs
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The book that Mack took to read on the plane to Spain:
Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas
Mack’s close friend Kailey keeps her borrowed copy of A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo on her night stand at the University of North Carolina, where she is a student.