I’m reading a book my mother really would have liked. Waking Up in Eden is about a woman who leaves her job in journalism and attendant East Coast urban lifestyle to become a fundraiser for an obscure (to me, anyway) botanical garden in Hawaii. I love the book because (and this is probably a holdover from my single days) one of my favorite genres is “woman leaves everything behind to do XX.”
I often do not like memoirs written by journalists because journalists are trained not to talk about themselves, and sometimes that discomfort shows up loud and clear in their writing. Also, sometimes journalists overwrite. I still haven’t forgotten “my father’s favorite tipple in his sunset years” by a woman who is probably in her forties or “it was a journey as madcap as it was bumptious.” But this one hits all the right notes.
Fleeson talks about being interested in women living alone in their forties. She mentions all sorts of books I love in the Woman Leaves Everything Behind genre. She talks about the environment in a way that is convincing and nondogmatic. She mentions Isabella Bird, a Victorian woman who left her comfortable home to go trekking in Hawaii, the Rockies, and the Far East. My mother was always trying to get me to read Isabella Bird too.
I used to talk to my mother on the phone several times a week. When we ran out of things to talk about, or were skirting things neither one of us wanted to talk about (my love life, her grief over losing my father, her health), we would shift to books. She would tell me all about what she was reading, and I would do the same. Just before I’d go down to visit her, I’d pace the bookstore where I worked.
“I can’t go home without a book for my mother,” I’d tell a coworker. “She’d make me sleep in the garage.”
I bought her Penelope Lively (whom we both confused with Penelope Fitzgerald), Bill Bryson (whom she would berate for hiking the Appalachian Trail with so little preparation), Gail Tsukiyama (whom I once met at the bookstore and who is charming as well as a fabulous writer). I knew not to buy her novels with too much sex or family strife. She loved nature writing, and thick biographies about composers. She read food writing and travel memoirs. Laurie Lee was a favorite, along with Henry Beston. I can’t remember if I read The Outermost House first or she did.
And now I have a new book for her, and of course, nowhere to send it. Three years after my mother died it’s the little things that make me sad. But it also makes me happy. I can love this book and think of her. And maybe after all these years I’ll read a little Isabella Bird too.
What makes you think of your mother?