I have gotten to the point in the novel I am reading that I’ve known was coming – the point that the whole book was about. It is when the young German soldier hears the radio broadcast and recognizes it as coming from the same source as the radio broadcasts he magically picked up on his homemade receiver before the war, when he was a boy. He is still just a boy, but now he is a boy with a gun, a pawn of the Reich. What he and his sister had prized so dearly as children were mesmerizing stories about science narrated by a mysterious Frenchman. Those broadcasts had been a suggestion of a larger and beautiful world. The broadcast he picks up now, as he and his unit slowly sweep across Europe listening to the hidden airwaves, is on behalf of the Resistance, riddles and enigmas filled with meaning.
It is exactly the kind of broadcast it is his job to ferret out. But I am guessing he will not ferret it out. Rather, the story will save him by reconnecting him to the innocence of his younger self. The story is the lifeline.
I wonder about all of the books I’ve read that I only hazily recall. So many books especially in that ten-year gap between graduate school, when I could finally put away Foucault, and motherhood, when I was too tired. The novels of Kaye Gibbons, which were published in a smaller format than most books, making them all the more special. The work of Laurie Colwin, which ended all too abruptly when she died young from breast cancer. A Hundred Acres before I’d ever heard the name Jane Smiley and Midnight’s Children before Salman Rushdie became a household name. So many other books that I cannot scrape from memory – books by authors who did not go on to great acclaim. Who perhaps published a single work. That one about the boy and his mother, traveling by night, living in a car. The woman returning to rural Illinois after her divorce. A retelling of the life of Gertrude Stein.
So many stories. Each of them in my veins. Remnants tucked away in the soft reserves of memory. And each containing their own kernels of who I was.
If there is one place that is hard for me to go, it is the children’s room of our local library. The essence of my kids’ younger selves are too palpable. The way it has all gone so fast hits me too strongly. I can’t breathe when I’m there. It’s too much.
All of those books that we would check out in greedy heaps and then the absolute pleasure we would take in coming home, that very afternoon, and going through them, one by one, taking in the pictures, the characters, the words. For a week, we would read and re-read them, before returning and restocking. Fingering the spines. Pulling one from here and two from there until our arms were full.
Now, it takes me weeks to read a book. I’ve always been a slow reader, but I am so far from those 20-something days of nowhere to be, nothing to do. Reading is something jammed between other things. A moment to be stubbornly grabbed. And so the absolute riches of those children’s storybooks and how you could devour a stack of them — like being allowed to eat all of the candy on Halloween night – and the way they were a shared treat between my children and me – this was absolutely one of the most joyful aspects of my life.
I wonder: When I am dying, will I hear all of these stories again. Will some benevolent narrator recount them all, tuning into a hidden brainwave? The books that my dad read to me as a kid and the books that I read to Bella and Tobey. The novels from my Seattle days and the ones I read in college and high school. All of the stories. Each of them unwinding in my memory and filling me with their wisdom, carrying me from one plane back to a place of pure innocence.