Memories from the Grave

Posted on May 29, 2018 by Martin Oaks under Community, Memorial
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When Philip Roth (pictured above) died last week at the age of 85, I couldn’t help but think that my late mother would have strongly lamented his passing. She was 93 when she died a few years ago.

What?  A 90-plus-year-old, who spent her whole life in a small Illinois town (population never approached 50,000), and had a distinct Roman Catholic sensibility, would have had an attachment to someone as urban, urbane and unlike her as Philip Roth?

Yes, it’s true, she admired him.

That admiration was based on two reasons — my Mother had a lifelong love of reading the best authors, and she had a curiosity that I would describe as intellectual (she would never accept the word intellectual; she might agree to the word informed).

As has been pointed out in this space before, we here at Martin Oaks Crematory and Cemetery are accustomed to families learning new bits of information after a loved one passes — the terms in a will, a diary left behind, letters, all can shed clues about the what those closest to us really felt inside.

When I heard about Roth’s passing, my thoughts did turn to my mother, specifically to a request she made of me in the late 1980’s (she would have been in her 60’s at the time).

She was aware that I was a Roth devotee, so she asked me to pick out one his novels for her –“not too sensational,” was her only condition. What she was saying was that she didn’t want me to send her “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

After due consideration, I mailed her “The Ghost Writer.”

It turned out to be a good choice — she thought it was dazzling in every respect. Well and precisely written, serious, thought provoking. She passed the book on to at least two of her sisters.

In case you haven’t read “The Ghost Writer,” it is about three characters: two writers (one resembles the real life Bernard Malamud, whose “The Natural” was one of Mother’s favorite novels), and a young lady who may or may not be Anne Frank.

My mother went on to read “Goodbye, Columbus,” and “The Human Stain,” both of which she greatly valued.

To appreciate how my Mother developed this serious reading avocation, all you have to do is examine the textbook she had in her junior year in high school (pictured above).  It is called “English Writers, Good Reading for High Schools,” written by Cross, Smith and Stauffer. Inside the cover is a sticker on which she signed her name, address and date she obtained the book — September 8, 1936.

As previously mentioned, looking at the artifacts of a lost loved one tells many insightful stories.

The quality of writing in this textbook is truly a reflection of the great reading people did in that era — Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Galsworthy, Christopher Marlowe, the list is daunting.

Two other features of the book stand out: the amount of underlining she did (she obviously read every page), and the large number of poems which are included.

The poetry stuck with her for the better part of the next almost 80 years.  She could pull a stanza of Longfellow, Wordsworth or Keats out of thin air anytime an event warranted a poetic comment.

While going through the book, I found two selections that were among her favorites, “On Growing Old” by John Masefield, and “Jenny Kissed Me,” by Leigh Hunt.  From the former, a meditation on aging, she often quoted the line “my mind remembers the beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.”

And from Hunt: “say that I’m weary, say I’m sad, say that health and wealth have missed me, say I’m growing old, but add, Jenny kissed me.”

My Mother explained to me that her retention of poetry was because she had to memorize and recite it in high school.

Obviously a devotion to reading starts off a long time before high school: Mother grew up in a home of readers, starting with her own parents. Those readings were the stuff of dinner conversations.

Not long before he died, Philip Roth expressed his concern that the screen was edging out the page and that we were losing our ability to concentrate on words.  Recent surveys show that reading is still popular, but there is a decline in serious reading. We are also at an all-time low in our reading of poetry.

Hopefully, these trends will reverse — but as my Mother would point out, it has to start in the home.

Philip Roth, RIP.  Jean Alexis, RIP.  An unusual pairing, but a true one, nonetheless.

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