I remember being a teenager, standing in a bookstore, running my fingers over the smooth spines. I lived with my mother, and we didn’t have a lot of money. When I was a freshman in high school, the price of oil plunged from forty dollars a barrel to twelve, and the Texas economy plunged with it. My mother had quit her job to start her own business just before the downturn. The business failed, and we started to go broke.
I got my first job when I was fourteen. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t legal for me to work, so I took less than minimum wage to scoop ice cream. By the time I was sixteen, I was assistant manager. I can still make a killer shake and decorate ice cream cakes like a boss. I had to pay part or all of my way for a lot of stuff—prom dress, school trips, junk like that. Mom worked three jobs to keep us afloat. I remember catching my mother going through her jewelry, figuring out what she could sell. Things were pretty shaky.
But in that bookstore, I was a queen. My mother once told me that if there was ever a book I wanted, she would buy it for me, and I believed her. I would scan the covers and choose something. My mother never tried to go back on her promise. We may not have had money for other things, but we had money for books. I recently read a piece that Anne Lamott wrote for the New York Times, in which she expressed her love and gratitude for a family whose main religion was the printed word. I know how she feels–my mother’s values were similar.
I told my husband about this recently, and he said, “Why didn’t you just go to the library?” Well, of course we went to the library. But the library doesn’t always have everything you want—and they don’t always have it in good condition. Besides, there’s something valuable about having a book that’s yours, that belongs to you. “We always have money for books,” my mother would say, and I think she felt the power in those words. I certainly did.