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Books in our house fell apart, bits of thread hanging from spines like raw nerves. Pages from the dictionary, Dad’s yearbooks, and picture books worked themselves free with the help of young fingers. First Renee and Andy’s, then mine. Grungy covers worn at the corners. Names printed in block letters on inside pages. An inky smile penned on a somber Jesus in a Bible stories book. In the dictionary, the word “Monkees” inserted next to the more traditional “monkey.”

Before I could read, I sat with books open on my lap, mimicking Mom, mimicking Renee, the family bookworms. How many times did I page through these books? How many hours a day? The images remain vivid, all these years later. Curious George spilling ink all over a desk. The stripes on the hat of the cat. Most bold, though, were the Victorian illustrations in the Complete Mother Goose, pictures that made my skin crawl though I didn’t know why, old men staring lecherously at young girls and effete, fat boys prancing around in bloomers or undershirts, wrinkled women with long, pointed noses, bony fingers, and bonnets on their heads.

Before there were words, there were pictures. And Mom’s stories to fill them out. Mom was the midwife who delivered to me stories. She knew, or at least knew of, most everyone in town. She knew their whispered stories. Mom possessed patience for my many questions unlike Dad, who moved at a nervous pace thanks to caffeine and nicotine. Her stories captivated me. I’d ask her to repeat them over and over. These were daytime versions of stories told to children at the bedside. My family didn’t do bedtime stories. Instead, the worlds that Mom recreated were very real.

An excerpt from We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, my memoir forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press Spring 2013.

Photo credit: Natalia Osiatynska

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