• The Books That Bear the Weight
    of the Living

    Angelique Stevens on What Her Mom's Books Truly Meant

    It was a running joke between my sister, my stepdad, and me. “When we can’t afford to eat, we’ll just sell some of your mother’s books.” My stepdad’s Boston accent still thick after 50 years in Rochester made it sound like “yuh muthah.” He had been married to Mom since we were babies, so we called him Dad. When it was time to move yet again, the four of us would pack all of our belongings, including the furniture, into one truckload before off-loading into an apartment not much bigger than the truck. We moved almost a hundred times by the time I was out of the house.

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    Sometimes Dad would go on another bender and lose his job, or Mom would go back into the psych ward and we’d get evicted for nonpayment. I never saw the four seasons change from the same apartment. During one move, we couldn’t fit an oval 1970s couch past the turn in the stairs. My sister and I struggled on one end, my dad on the other. Fed up, he sawed off the back center leg. When we finally got it inside, Dad used three of Mom’s larger books to act as feet for the couch. “Don’t tell your mother,” he said. We’d laugh. We never understood why she saved them. They seemed like dead weight.

    Each move, I double-stacked bookcases into tiny apartments, one on top of the other, then double-stacked the books onto the shelves while Mom and Dad went to the old apartment to clean up. Gina, my sister, was only ten months older than I was. We were as close in age as two siblings could get without being twins. One time, when we were about seven or eight, my parents were both out for the day. Gina climbed a set of bookcases like a ladder to reach something on top, and then she and both bookcases tumbled to the floor. She wasn’t even scratched. I yelled at her as we rushed to replace the books in haphazard order before our parents came home. Mom never noticed, and if she did, she never said anything.

    Move after move, I boxed, carried, unpacked, and re-shelved hundreds of authors—Faulkner, Twain, Kafka, Miller, Crane, Baldwin, Swift, and Dante. My mother had a complete box set of Hemingway novels. I always put them on the shelf by size, starting with The Old Man and the Sea and ending with For Whom the Bell Tolls. I held those books so many times, their authors and titles were imprinted in my mind before I ever knew their importance. Red crayon covered the front of Faulkner’s Go Down Moses. Inside the yellowed pages, my childlike scribbles superimposed over paragraph-long sentences. My fourth-grade apology—sorry mom it was a accident—replaced the torn-off cover of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

    *

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    When I was 27, I hadn’t been thinking about college, but a friend of mine told me it was possible, even then, in the midst of all that scraping and struggling. Gina had been arrested again for prostitution. Mom and Dad had separated by then, but they still spent most of their time together. The three of us lived in separate studio apartments within blocks of each other. Dad would call me up two days before payday and ask for money. “Angie,” he’d say in that Boston accent, “your mother and I need some money for cigarettes and food.” I’d scrounge up six dollars in change for them. The next week, I’d ask one of them for money to buy a loaf of bread and carton of eggs to last a couple days. There was no reason to think I could go to school, but my friend took me to the community college’s registration office, then he held my hand at the financial aid office. He told me I could figure it out, and if I couldn’t, I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t afford textbooks that first year. Whatever readings weren’t at the library or online, I read in the aisles of the bookstore. In my Modern American Literature class, I was assigned a list of titles I hadn’t thought about since I moved out of my parents’ house. So one night, I bought a few groceries and boarded the bus to Mom’s studio apartment.

    While waiting for dinner in my mother’s tight-walled living room, I looked over at her bookcases, the ones I had stacked again and again over the years. The titles, tidy-wedged on polished shelves, stood as testament to her love of books. They competed for space with the TV, a stereo, her brown plaid pullout couch, and two twittering canaries in antique cages.

    “Mom, did you really read all of those books?”

    “When I was in the state hospital. There was not much to do but sit in the dayroom,” she said as she flipped the chicken legs in the pan. “You can read a lot of books in twelve years, Angie.”

    In the back of my mind, a switch flipped. I had always thought those books just filled space in Mom’s shoddy memory. I never believed she’d actually read them. But now I saw past all of her dark paranoia-induced rages, all my childhood years: the tantrums at the grocery store because someone looked at her wrong; the repeating and rocking and swearing because she saw herself backed into a corner; the embarrassment I felt at school, on the bus, in my own living room. I picked up Kafka’s The Trial, fingered the creases on the binder, turned the yellowed pages, skeptical. “What’s this about?”

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    “You can read it if you want. It’s kind of strange. This guy is on trial and you never find out why. Maybe you can make sense of it.”

    I saw her reading it in the corner of her hospital ward as a teen, her feet up over the side of a cushioned chair, other patients milling about, crayoned drawings of golden moons and pink-gilded princesses on the wall, the sun shining in from a barred window behind her, her dreaming of boys and high school dances that she would never experience. She went into the hospital in eighth grade and did not come out until she met my father on the ward and got married at 26. They only lasted a couple years, long enough to have my sister and me before he started drinking and raging again. She sought refuge at the AA meetings, where she knew my father would not show up again. That’s where she met my stepdad, John.

    I asked Mom if I could borrow Huckleberry Finn and The Red Badge of Courage. I located them on the shelves while she mashed potatoes. I saw the Hemingways in the same order I had arranged them as a child. I pulled out The Old Man and the Sea and held it like a gem. I had learned by then, those titles were classics. “Mom, have you read all of these Hemingway books?”

    “Yeah, do you want to take one? Don’t start with that. It’s about an old fisherman. I didn’t like it. It’s slow. Read A Farewell to Arms: it’s a beautiful love story and it has a young hunk in it.”

    I took them both.

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    I held those books so many times, their authors and titles were imprinted in my mind before I ever knew their importance.

    Later that week, I went to the park across the street from my own tight-walled studio. I had a few hours to breathe some air and sit in the sun after work and before my evening class. Though I didn’t need it for school, I pulled out The Old Man and the Sea and read it in one sitting. The next week, I read A Farewell to Arms. Later, I read Kafka, Miller, Woolf, and Baldwin.

    In class, we went over that beautiful opening in the first paragraph of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” The word “it” is repeated six times. At first, the “it” refers to the story in the newspaper where the narrator learns his brother, Sonny, was arrested for heroin. But then sentence by sentence, the “it” changes. “It” becomes representative of the struggle the brothers experience, of all things visible and invisible, of black and white. Then the “it” evolves into something even larger as it dangles in the “swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and the bodies of the people.” By the end of the paragraph, he sees the “it” in his “own face trapped in the darkness which roared outside.” I couldn’t stop thinking about that physical image—the narrator seeing his own reflection in the subway window—about how both the light inside and that backdrop of darkness outside were necessary in order for him to reflect upon his own image, his own life, and what it meant to him.—

    *

    Then my mother called me up one morning and said, “Your stepdad died at the VA Hospital last night. Can you figure out the details?” I called the VA, and they said everything was taken care of and did I want a service? I said no. But I took the day off school and drove the two hours alone to the cemetery to watch from a distance as they interred the coffin. We just went on about our lives after that.

    By the time I was in grad school, something triggered Mom’s paranoia again, and she was evicted from her apartment. It had started with Mom calling 911 daily about some threat in her apartment. Other times it was her neighbors who called 911 on her. It got so the 911 operators had my number on file whenever a call came in for my mother’s address. One hot August night, I received a phone call.

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    “Angie Stevens? This is the 911 operator calling about Carole Foster—is that your mother?”

    “Yes, she’s my mother.”

    “Several of her neighbors have called about her again. She’s on her front porch swearing and threatening people who walk by. We wanted to call you first to see if you can calm her down. If not, we’ll have to have mental health arrest her.”

    She lived in Rochester’s young, hip Park Avenue area. It was within walking distance to a bus stop and near everything that could make her self-sufficient without a car. When I arrived at the apartment, it was well after midnight. She was on her front porch waving a frantic fist. Her nipples poked through a sheer nightgown. Sweat dripped down her red face as she screamed. Neighbors sat theater style sneering on their porches across the street.

    “Fuck you motherfuckers! I’ll roll up the sky on you—who the fuck do you think you are? go ahead! call the motherfucking police! I’ll tell them how you threatened me!”

    “Mom! Stop!” I grabbed hold of her clammy arms and forced her inside the house and up the stairs. She smelled of cigarettes and diarrhea.

    Her lunatic repeating unnerved me that late at night, all those people staring at us. “Those motherfuckers—who do they think they are? He told me he would roll up the sky! Roll up the fucking sky! I don’t care if I get arrested, Angie. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care.”

    “Mom, I didn’t hear them say anything; you’re the one screaming.” I was raging inside. “Shut the fuck up; nobody is coming after you,” I wanted to say. But instead, I grabbed a towel and threw it at her. “Jesus, Mom, you’ve got to find a way to calm down; no one is going to do anything to you. Wipe your face.” I leaned against the chair and mumbled, “Roll up the sky? What does that even mean?”

    “Angie, I heard them. I heard them. I heard them. They were on the other side of that bedroom wall screaming, ‘I’ll roll up the world.’” She wailed my name, like a child’s whine stretching out the second syllable so it sounded like Angeeeee. Her mad pacing back and forth across the tiny living room was so unnatural it made me cringe.

    “There’s nothing out there, Mom. It’s an outside wall of a second floor.” I took her by the arm and walked her to her chair and made her sit.

    “I’ve got to work tomorrow. I can’t be coming over here at all hours of the night. You need to stay calm.” Then I kissed on her cheek and walked out. On the stairs, in a whisper, I spat, “God, I fucking hate . . . her.”

    Two weeks later, she got an eviction notice. I took over. I found another apartment around the corner in the same neighborhood. I borrowed a truck and asked my friend JJ if she would help me. JJ and I had been roommates for years, and as my best friend, she knew Mom well. She also had a patience for my mother that I could not for the life of me summon.

    In the past, Mom had always seemed to know when her sickness meant she couldn’t decipher reality anymore and it was time to admit herself to the psych center. I guess I thought she would get better on her own or she’d just admit herself when she was ready, but maybe I had been wrong all those years. Maybe it was really Dad who had always made the decision.

    I realized then that carrying her books all those years had only made me stronger.

    One year after Mom had been admitted again—Gina and I were around 12 and 13—Dad had gone to visit Mom in the state hospital. She asked him to bring her some vampire books. He brought her Salem’s Lot and Frankenstein.

    “Dad, you know Frankenstein isn’t a vampire.” “It’s close enough,” he said.

    When he came home that night, he told us that she had broken her wrist chasing him down the hallway. I imagined her crying on her bed in the psych ward, unable to turn the pages of her books. I asked my dad that night why he married her. I couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t spinning out of control in the same cycle—he would be sober for months, then drunk for weeks; she’d be sort of normal for a while, then psychosis would send her back into paranoia rages.

    “Because I loved your mother. She was beautiful when I met her. You two were just babies. We needed each other then. We still do.” I tried to recall moments of tenderness between them—Sunday afternoon drives when Mom’s play fighting made him laugh, evenings when she rubbed salve on his cracked hands—but most of the time, it was Mom’s bloodcurdling screams and his swearing that pervaded our lives.

    The day that JJ and I were supposed to move Mom, we tried to be strategic. Transfer Mom and enough comfortable things in the first trip to the new apartment so that she wouldn’t bother us with her tirades while we worked. She smelled like she hadn’t showered in days; vagina, urine, and smoke seeped through her clothes. I wanted to put a plastic bag on the seat before she got into the truck. We decided to bring her TV, some food, a couch and table, all of her bath stuff and clean clothes so she could take a shower while we moved another load. I put on a pot of coffee, and JJ hung a new shower curtain. We plugged in the TV and set up the couch and table across from it. As bare as it was, with the coffee going and the television on, it felt like a home. We left her in the shower so we could move another load.

    JJ and I were already halfway through packing a second load when we heard the screaming outside. Mom’s faint voice coming from down the road stopped us both. JJ and I looked at each other and ran down the stairs. Outside, we heard her, “Angeeeee, oh God,” she yelled. She was running toward us from her new apartment less than a block away, naked, holding a small towel by its corner barely covering a breast. I heard a neighbor whisper, “Oh, my God” as we ran to meet her. JJ on one side, me on the other, we held the towel in front of her as we rushed her to the porch and up the stairs. “Oh God, oh God, thank God you’re safe, Angie!” she cried.

    “Mom, of course I’m safe. What did you think happened?”

    “I heard the thunder when I was in the shower, and I could have sworn someone shot you. I thought someone was shooting you, Angeeee.”

    Later, when the police came to take her, she wasn’t having any of it. She pleaded with me not to send her away. The cops held her arms. She kicked and screamed, “Let go of me.”

    “It’s okay, Mom. I’ll pack up some books for you and some clothes. I’ll come visit. It will get better,” I said. But I didn’t know that for sure. I wasn’t seeing things clearly. I don’t think I would have called 911 that day. It was JJ who said it was time to call the police. I might have otherwise just tried to wait it out, let Mom get mental health arrested by someone else when I wasn’t around. I had never had to be the one to make that call before.

    In graduate school, I read twenty books a semester. I took a class called “Readers as Writers,” where we studied postmodernism. I fell in love with Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. There’s the scene where he throws his mother’s ashes into the ocean. It’s supposed to be reverent and melancholy, but he’s working against the wind. The ashes fly back into his face and in his mouth, and he’s cursing himself for spitting out his mother. I read that scene in prayer style, knees on the floor, the book held open on the bed in my one-room studio; and I alternated between heaving sobs and choking laughter.

    I saw my mom and her years in the asylum—all of her stories, setting fire to a maintenance closet because her doctor wouldn’t reciprocate her love, feeling the electrodes pulse against her temples as a teenager, and even later, falling in love with my biological father, Reggie, who was on the ward for alcoholism, both of them getting discharged to start a new life outside those walls. I imagined her packing into boxes, for the first time, the books that lined her hospital room. They were the only things she could call her own. That collection grew as the years passed until it dominated everything else in our home, until it became the only consistency in our lives. I realized then that carrying her books all those years had only made me stronger.

    My mother died the year I started graduate school. With an oxygen line in her nose, she lit a cigarette. The line caught fire and burned everything in its path from the living room where she sat all the way along the floor to her bedroom where the fire stopped at the failsafe on the oxygen tank. She tamped the growing fire down with a towel while crawling on her knees from room to room. But she was too slow. The smoke filled her lungs, and she passed out just after she had put the fire out. She had a heart attack when she arrived at the hospital.

    Gina sobered up for the weeks after my mother’s death; the crack-pipe blisters on her fingers healed, and she seemed normal for a while. We drove together to Mom’s apartment the day we received the ashes. Most of my mother’s belongings went to the curb. We left the big furniture behind. Neither of us had room, so we told the maintenance man to give it away. I brought plastic totes for the things we would keep: old pictures of our grandmother, who had died in a fireworks factory when our mother was eight months old; our mother’s wedding band with the little lightning bolt on it; a few pictures of us when we were girls; the crystal glasses our mother had saved for years to buy and then left preserved in boxes for most of our lives; the red and white blanket she crocheted; and her books.

    Gina walked across the street to get us hamburgers for lunch, and I sat on the floor in front of the bookshelves and wept. Most of the books were damaged beyond repair. Some were over fifty years old. I put them in the recycle bin for the curb. Then I found Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I wiped off the dust and placed it neatly into an empty box. I cleaned off the Hemingways one at a time starting with The Old Man and the Sea and ending with For Whom the Bell Tolls and packed them away into the box too, then Faulkner, Twain, Kafka, Miller, Crane, Baldwin, Swift, and Dante, and a few others. Later that afternoon, I lugged that box up the stairs to my own tiny studio. I put it in the living room, where the sun’s rays slanted across the carpet. I opened the box, and beginning with The Old Man and the Sea, I placed the books on the shelves, one by one, next to my own collection.

    _________________________________

    This essay will appear in the anthology Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, forthcoming September 1 (University of Nebraska Press).

    Angelique Stevens
    Angelique Stevens
    Angelique is a Six Nations Cayuga living in Upstate New York where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature of Genocide, and race literatures. Her non-fiction can be found in The New England Review, Booth, The Chattahoochee Review, Cleaver, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Bennington College in Creative Nonfiction and an MA from SUNY Brockport in Literature. and was a general contributor at the 2018 Bread Loaf Writer's Conference the Kenyon Review Workshop (June 2019), and Tin House (July 2019).





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