Bookstores helped me connect with my mother—and send my daughter off to college

By Sarah Gundle

For most of my life, my relationship with my mother was stormy and contentious. While today I marvel at her pluck—a 25-year-old new mother from a small Kansas farm town moving to Israel with her husband—I grew up mirroring my father’s contempt for her. Inwardly, I longed for a mother I could turn to, but showed her only disdain.

Throughout my childhood, we battled: I slammed doors and yelled: “I just want you to listen! Just see me!” I would invariably feel dropped when, overwhelmed by my fury, she would fall silent. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realized she might have her own stratagems for reaching me through my invective. When spoken—or shouted—words failed, she turned to the written word. Books became our lifeline. 

For my mother, books were her scripture, and bookstores her temple. The orderly aisles of hard and soft covers, with their mossy new page smell, gave her—and soon me—a comfort in belonging, a connection to something bigger than ourselves. In those quiet sanctums, I could almost see her shoulders relax, her perpetually frightened look resolve into something like contentment. And so, I followed suit. In that hushed, almost reverent milieu, my mother and I always found connection. 

Bookstores have a sense of oceanic limitlessness. They remind us of how small we really are, and how vast the world is outside ourselves. There will never be enough time to read all the books on the shelves, and even if we somehow could, new ones are constantly replacing the old. In the face of that vastness, there is little to do but surrender one’s ego, to let go of whatever petty grievance might consume us outside. My mother needed books to escape her own sense of confinement, the prison of fear and insecurity she’d constructed around herself. They served a slightly different function for her daughter: to provide me with the sense of order she couldn’t.

Books became the language through which we communicated. Whereas I often felt unseen by her in the course of regular life, I came to realize that she was sending me coded messages through her choice of book recommendations. Often, when she and I were most estranged, a book might show up on my bedside table. Though its title might seem wholly disconnected from my life, it almost invariably turned out to be just what I needed.

When we moved to America before I started kindergarten, I felt as though I might be falling off the edge of the earth. She gave me a book about an invisible zebra named Alexander, who felt out of place and lonely in the world. When another move across the country as a teenager felt like I was leaving behind my childhood altogether, she left me A Separate Peace. The promise in To Kill a Mockingbird that “When you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway,” helped get us through our years of turbulence. When I was struggling to figure out my career path, she sent me a series of Persian and Indian migration family stories, which led me, surely if not circuitously, to becoming a psychologist. During my divorce she gave me Michael Dorris’s A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, a strong reminder that the problems of one generation can be inherited by the next.

Some people think of books as friends. I think of them more as family members who will always accept and welcome you no matter what. When my parents divorced, I retreated to the plush chair in the furthest corner of the old Elliot Bay books in Seattle and found solace in poetry my mother had introduced me to. “Someone I loved once gave me a box of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift,” Mary Oliver’s words reassured me. When I experienced my first real heartbreak, I found comfort in Yehuda Amichai’s reminder that “the world is made beautifully and built for a good rest, like a bench in a park.” I might have never turned directly to my mother during those losses, but I felt her compassion nonetheless just behind the words on the page.

When I had my own children, my relationship with my mother changed dramatically.  Her warmth and love, so furtive during my childhood and young adulthood, burst into the open. One weekend I watched her on the floor with my children, effortlessly transitioning from one imaginary play activity to the next, then snuggling on the couch with them as she read a story. It was like stumbling into a room you didn’t know existed in a house you’d lived in all your life. Had it been here all along?

Every few months, my mother sends my kids a box of beautifully curated books. With her uncanny knack for choosing the right titles, my daughters have always known what I didn’t: that these books are communicating love. Her latest surprise gem was Elif Batuman’s: The Idiot. “This is exactly the book I wanted, but I didn’t tell her. How did she know?” my daughter said, dumbfounded.

My mother’s love of bookstores has filtered down to my children. Every time we visit her home in Seattle, I know that their excursion to Elliot Bay Books will last at least three hours. One of the most connected and joyful moments I’ve shared with my mom was when I told her that my oldest daughter’s first word was “book.”

That literary attachment between grandmother and granddaughter has paid dividends for me too.  Since my eldest daughter Yael was little, we have had our own bookstore dates. Book Court made me feel at home when I first moved to my Brooklyn neighborhood when she was three. Curled up in a chair, the winter light pouring through a big storefront glass, we both felt comforted as we read A Little Princess. Yael was entranced and, newly divorced, I needed the reminder that there can be beauty in heartache. Later, when she entered her own stormy adolescence, our bookstore dates became a surefire method to reset after a fight.

Unlike my relationship with my mother, Yael and I have always been able to communicate through words. But I have been blindsided by how hard it has been to say goodbye as she prepares to leave for college this month. So, I’m calling on the lessons my mother taught me. In place of talking, we have been spending time in our favorite bookstores. Much more than points on a map, they trace our voyage as mother and daughter. 

I aspire to be as good at communicating love through books as my mother. I tucked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book we read together, in her suitcase and I’m already planning the first book I will send to her at college. I hope as she gets her footing there, the invisible thread between us will remain intact. But, just in case, our first stop in her new college town will be to the bookstore.

Sarah Gundle has a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a master’s degree in International Affairs. In addition to her private practice, she is clinical faculty at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is currently writing a book about breakups.

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