A somewhat rare parasite in our culture today; it burrows beneath the skin and seeks out the brain causing fever and chills when the victim is not reading or in the presence or possession of books. My mother was one of these— a Book Worm. (Oddly, the same name given to the parasite and to the host.) As an only child, who could not partake in physical education due to a heart condition, she was banned to the library (much like forcing an art thief to do time at the Louvre). Her poor eyesight demanded that she wear glasses from an early age (clear, roundish spectacles) that tailor-made and defined the stereotype. ‘Barbara Jean’ was shy and diminutive, with mousy auburn hair that curled naturally.
She preferred the company of cats and books to people. Her friends were few and lasting, and by habit, she was reclusive; as a result— she was very bright. School was not a challenge, and writing and reciting became passions as she breezed through Latin and loved Shakespeare; committing great gobs of the bard’s verse to memory which she was able to draw up for almost any occasion. Classic literature and poetry were also a favorite fare, and she consumed these in abundance to the amazement of her fellow students and instructors.
She graduated with honors at the end of World War II, fell in love with, and married, a very unstudious, athletic veteran whom she tutored to a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. She never learned to drive (after one harrowing lesson with my father) and bore five children in less than 7 years; insuring that there would be no lack of company for any of us, including herself. The profession she pursued was that of mother and housewife; not a doctor as she had once imagined. Fully grown, with her shoulders squared, Mom was 4 feet 10 inches in height. But her stature was never lost on her children or anyone else she encountered. She walked everywhere, and when she was en route, it was difficult to keep up with her short, but purposeful stride.
Being the first child, she enrolled me into a Book Club well before I could read, and the parasite was successfully implanted. I soon grew to love everything about books: the look, feel, smell, covers, typefaces, pages, words, end-papers, dust-jackets and pictures. There was nothing about books I didn’t like, and Mom made sure that I was infected by the best, most potent and meaningful classics from mythical to the fanciful.
She read everything; from ketchup bottles to encyclopedias, and she absolutely loved a good mystery. When asked how to spell a word, she responded as if in a spelling bee: repeating the word, spelling it, (enunciating each letter) and then repeating the word again. She was a keen etymologist, often pointing out the root or origin of the word, and wondering aloud why Latin had been dropped from the school curriculum. When we asked what anything meant, her stock reply was, “Look it up. You’ll never learn unless you do.” She made us read- and think. Mom was the best proofreader alive, but refused to write our work for us- only suggest. As sport, she was the best Jeopardy player we ever saw because she knew a little about everything, but her shyness prevented her from the horrific thought of appearing on television. This fact frustrated our dad to no end as ‘easy money’ was certainly being lost. He refused to watch after awhile as we invited our friends over to see Mom answer the questions effortlessly from her corner rocker until she tired of the attention and slipped back quietly into her book.
I’ll never forget coming in late one night as a teenager; Mom was waiting up as she often did in her corner chair with a book. I asked her what she was reading. “‘M’,” she replied and held up the ‘M’ World Book Encyclopedia. For the next few days we were all regaled to the many wonders of the letter ‘M’ . . . small and interesting factoids about everything from the assassination of President Mckinley— to the total square miles of mountains in Montana- and for good measure- the origin of the Maypole Dance. (Mom was waiting for her next Book Club edition to arrive.)
In her mid 40’s she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and her passions for walking and reading came to a slow, but certain halt. She bravely fought the disease for another 27 years keeping her unique brand of humor and wit to the end. She remains a hero in my life as I recall this ‘Little Giant’ standing tall with other giants both real and imagined; biblical, mythical and historical. Her impact and influence on me is as immeasurable as is her stature. She was a dictionary inside of an encyclopedia inside of a mystery novel. She instilled the love of words, and the beauty of being a wordsmith opened up doors to the worlds of poetry, literature and myth that continue to open for myself and my children to this day.
For me, the importance of words and stories to a visual artist is inestimable: words create word-pictures; one illustrating and enhancing the other. In their own way, words have become the subconscious connective tissue of my creative spirit: an eternal row of multi-colored dominoes, one tripping the other along an ever-winding trail; each with a story to tell and a picture to show. In the end, it’s no wonder that I became an illustrator. It was more a matter of behavioral osmosis than training: my dad an artist, and my mom a book worm. What else could I do?
Thank you Mom, for passing along the parasite. It would be a different world without it— and you . . . and Dickens and Dickinson and Doyle, and Burroughs and Bronte and Bradbury, and Seuss and Steinbeck and Stevenson, Hawthorne and Hemingway, Wordsworth and Whitman, John and James, Tolkien, Twain and Tolstoy, Melville and Maugham, Faulkner and Frost and Fitzgerald, Poe and Pasternak, and a thousand others whose names I could not possibly conjure, who have touched and tainted me irrevocably in my forever-thoughts.
How different life would be without the worm. I can’t imagine. Don’t want to!
Hurry! Quick! Someone pass me the ketchup bottle!