Note: The following essay originally appeared as a blog post on a previous version of this website around 2015, and was then included in my self-published 2018 essay collection, Guinea Bastard. A lot has happened since I first posted it. A sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was published. I became a father of twin girls. My mother’s dementia progressed. I’ve been thinking about the essay recently, and thought it might be worth posting here again. It’s a love letter, to my mother and to books. I hope you enjoy.
A few years ago, on the 50th Anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I decided to reread the novel for the first time since high school. Being a classic novel that I was certain even my mother had read, I suggested we read it together in some kind of mother/son book club. Within a week, my mother gave it up. “Too depressing,” she said. “ Who wants to read about broken arms?”
She clearly hadn’t gotten very far.
A curious result of my mother’s early onset dementia is an aversion to anything even remotely depressing. She doesn’t remember having estate arguments with her family after her stepmother died or getting divorced from my father. She doesn’t remember struggling and working two and three jobs at a time to make ends meet and live on her own. And she doesn’t remember getting sick herself and going on disability after years of helping the aged and bedridden as a visiting homemaker. I had given her a Billy Crystal book years before the birth of the mother/son book club, and she seemed to like that. So perhaps I should have chosen something lighter for our inaugural read.
My thinking behind the book club was two-fold. One, reread the book, and two, bond with my mother over something I’ve given her the bulk of the credit for in my life: my love of books. I thought sharing in something she instilled in me would give us a new way to navigate what was surely going to be rocky terrain as her dementia progressed.
From my earliest days being dropped off at the Zabriskie Street branch of the Jersey City Public Library, I have found a comfort in books. I like to be around them. To always be reading them. I carry one with me just in case I have a moment to read it, even on busy days when I know I won’t have the opportunity. And for this I credit my mother.
She was the one who dropped me off at the library. In between screenings of Disney’s The Jungle Book and arts and crafts classes where we made kazoos out of toilet paper rolls, I read books. I took stacks of them home with me, each stamped with the date they needed to be returned, and each with a corresponding card that now had a record of the fact that I, Joe Pagetta, had turned its pages. When the Scholastic Books Catalog came out, my mother encouraged me to choose copies of The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island to add to my own collection. One Christmas, she didn’t hesitate when I eschewed GI Joes and Masters of the Universe characters and told her all I wanted was to go up to Garden State News on Central Avenue and pick up copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Robinson Crusoe and whatever else my personal library was lacking.
That I can’t share with my mother my passion for something she is partly responsible for is sometimes difficult; a vivid reminder of her disease. When my wife Keri and I moved into our new house, we invited my mother to come over and see what we had done with the place. The new office/library was crammed with books, overflowing in front of and on top of the insufficient number of bookcases we had decided to move.
“Joey and his books,” my mother said. “He’s always had a lot of books. Why do you need all these books?”
“It’s my personal library,” I assured her. “And you’re the one that’s responsible for it.”
I reminded her about Zabriskie Street, and Garden State News. And while she remembered the library, she didn’t immediately make the connection as to what they had to do with all the books in my house. I think she even said something like, “yeah, you’re supposed to bring them back,” but that could have easily been my wife ribbing me as well.
And then I had an idea. I pulled down my old paperback copies of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelf, and showed her the inside of the covers. There, in black rubber stamp ink, sans serif font, was my full name and the street address where I grew up, where we once lived as a family.
I think that’s when it hit her. I had some of these books for over 30 years. I still had those books she bought me at Garden State News. When I was building my personal library, and stacking them in the cabinet in the furnace room in the basement of the house where I was raised, I figured a proper library needed a library stamp. So I had one made. I didn’t know about bookplates and the various other professional ways to mark books, so I got a basic return address rubber stamp, and stamped the inside covers of all my books.
There have been times when I’ve moved in the last two decades and wondered why I lugged around all these books. Why, even after dropping off boxes of books at the library and Goodwill, there were still some books I couldn’t part with. What value is there in some generic Penguin paperback version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or James Joyce’s Dubliners? And why, when browsing a used bookstore, did I get excited about a pristine paperback copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, an exact copy of the one I had as a kid. I always thought it was because at some point my son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter, might come home from school and tell me they were reading Rousseau or Plato or Nietzsche, and I could say, “Oh, I have that right here.” Or maybe they were embarking on Joyce or Hemingway or Fitzgerald and I could tag along. I still think those are valid justifications, even in a digital world. But I think there are other reasons now, too. Reasons that didn’t exist even a decade ago.
My mother and I may never read a book together again, and thinking back, I’m not certain we ever really did. But she’s with me in every volume I pull off the shelf in my personal library—whether in the rubber stamp on the inside cover, in the fond memory of her letting me pick whatever I wanted in the bookstore, or in her voice every time I bring her over my house for lunch and she wonders why I have all these books.
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[Image: A quote from Harper Lee painted on the wall in the library at Holy Rosary Academy in Nashville, TN.]