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My Mother's Library

It was only by pure chance that I happened to be in the country on the day that my mother suddenly died. Shocked and bewildered, I arrived with my backpack at her now uninhabited house, answered the phone that was ringing off the hook and somehow never left. I justified my decision to stay in lots of ways but in truth I couldn’t face the thought of what would inevitably happen if I didn’t. My mother had died four years after my father and now the house was empty. How could I dismantle the lives of my parents, sell the house they had built together, disperse and discard the possessions they had loved?

As I put down roots for the first time in years, the tiny community that had once embraced my parents embraced me too. I was immediately invited and included in every activity that had once been my mother’s in the expectation that I would love what she had loved, do the things that she had done. I was my mother’s daughter wasn’t I? Deeply touched and grateful, I nevertheless had the unnerving feeling that I was an imposter stepping into her shoes, that my own identity was being overshadowed hers - the way it had always been.

In truth we had never been alike, our relationship always a difficult one. One of the few things we had shared was a love of books. In fact, my mother’s house was overflowing with them. She’d been a leading member of the local book club, taken charge of the community library and run used books sales for charity. However, it was for her own personal library that she had been most famous amongst her friends. In a way her love of literature was her masterpiece. Now this wealth of culture and wisdom locked up in ink and paper was my inheritance, the family jewels. Yet after the funeral, as I surveyed the shelves that held thousands of books, I felt a sense of panic. My mother had been a brisk, no nonsense person who polished off books with efficiency. I was the opposite, a slow reader, a dreamer who lingered over every page, savored every word. How would I ever manage to read all these books?

But it was more than that. I remembered once a long time ago when I had been a teenager standing next to these bookshelves with my mother and musing that one day I would write. She had given me a withering look. “You? Write?” Behind her were the spines of Tolstoy, Proust, James, Rushdie. They were writers. Not me. What was I thinking?

It was months after the shock of my mother’s death before all my conflicted feelings poured out in a torrent of grief and tears. It happened at a moment when I and my closest friend stood staring silently at this library, my mother’s great monument. My friend didn’t say a thing. Instead she went to the linen press, returned with an armload of bed sheets and proceeded to completely cover up the bookcases. “You will come to terms,” she said, “But it will be a journey and you’re not ready for it yet.”

She was right. The books could wait. In the meantime I slowly set about establishing my own identity in my new world. I joined the book club but turned down the offer to take over my mother’s role as librarian. I helped with the books sales but refused the role of organizer. I wanted to be my own person. I wanted to write. And I did.

And then one dark winter night I was assailed by a craving to read. Gingerly, I lifted one corner of a bed sheet that still covered the book cases. The first book to jump out at me was not some dense doorstop but different jewel entirely: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a classic little mystery that my mother had put into my hands when I was fourteen years old. I’d been enthralled as she had known I would be. As I curled up in bed, nostalgia, happy memories and a sense of comfort spilled from the pages. This was my mother’s peace offering. Even the longest journey begins with a single step.

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