November 1, 2010

The Comfort of Tolstoy

Posted in Books, Family, Health, Women tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:49 am by Liliana

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

I am not sure when I read my first book by Tolstoy, but I know this – he was in my life long before I was born.

Tolstoy was my mother’s favorite writer.

We had old, worn out, hard cover copies of his books sitting on our bookshelf. I don’t know where they came from, maybe my mother’s schoolgirl days.

Each book was divided into a number of volumes. The books were bound in soft, stained red leather. The paper inside was fleecy white and had a distinctive dusty, book-y smell.

The feel and the smell of those books has been imprinted on my consciousness forever.

And the characters and the stories? They live with me every day.

I named my daughter Natalia (nicknamed Nena) after Natasha Rostova in War and Peace. Sam’s middle name is Leo (Tolstoy’s first name.)

Both my mother and I reread all of Tolstoy’s books many times during our lives. We talked about them again and again. We changed our minds about different characters and interpreted events and relationships in contrasting ways. Tolstoy gave us the vocabulary to discuss themes and subjects that we might not have had the courage to discuss otherwise.

As my mother grew sicker from Alzheimer’s Disease, she grew fearful and suspicious of the world around her and all its inhabitants. She slept less and less. Nothing seemed to follow the rules of behavior that her reshaping mind dictated.

Except for Tolstoy.

In the last year of her life she could not read. She hardly slept. She did not know who any of us were. She had lost most of her connections to the outside world.

But many nights, Jeff and I found her lying on the living room sofa tightly holding on to one of the volumes of the soft, worn out copy of War and Peace. She pretended to read.

Sometimes she held the book upside down.

When none of us could bring her comfort, Tolstoy did. Not with direct words anymore, but with the deeply ingrained memories and shadows of the world he created. Of the girl and woman that she once was. It was the one stable, unmoving constant in a life rapidly degenerating out of control.

My mother held on to that book until she died.


March 20, 2010

My Little Reader

Posted in Books, Children, Family tagged , , , , , at 7:12 am by Liliana

Nena - my little reader

Nena - my little reader

When my children were young, we had a little, green, two-shelf bookcase in our family room. It was low enough for the kids to to reach anything they wanted to take, and it was full of colorful picture books. All three of my children love books. But while Mike and Sam love to read in order to acquire new information, for Nena books and stories are an end in themselves. Long before she could read, the pictures, letters and sounds of words themselves captured her imagination.

As a toddler, Nena would come down from her room early in the mornings, and the first thing she did was pad over to the little green bookcase. She would take out as many books as she could, make a little mound and sit on top of it. Then, comfortable and happy, she would pull books out from under her bottom, one at the time. She would look at pictures, and tell or sing to herself what she believed to be the story. If she wanted more information, she would bring it to her dad or to me, settle herself in our laps and patiently listen while we read. Nena could sit like this for hours.

Nena hasn’t changed her attitude towards books over the years. Books are her portal to a world that few of us can see or imagine. She is twenty one years old now, and about to graduate from college. Frequently, when she comes home to visit, I will find her in her room. All around her, there will be piles of books and she will sit in the middle of them, that dreamy, faraway look still in her eyes.