A Mystery That's a Love Story

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Winter 2016

By Mary Jo Pehl

“Not as good as some serial killer books I’ve read,” my mother wrote in 1998 of a book she’d just finished. I know because after she died I got all of her books. Or, rather, I got the notes she kept on them. My mother read a lot—so much that she started keeping track of books when she was in her 60s. No doubt she grew weary of telling me for the umpteenth time, “I swear I’ve read this before.”

Over time, she created her own little card catalog, a plastic recipe box full of 3 x 5-inch index cards with notes on every book she read. On each card, in her squat, looping handwriting, she wrote the author’s name in the upper-left-hand corner with the book’s title underneath. In the right-hand corner, she recorded the month and year she’d read it.

Books, 400 of them, were rated on a scale of 1 to 10. Sometimes she made a point of giving a book a 0. Reviews, when she gave them, tended to be terse: “Dumb.” “Loved.” “Hokey.” “All-time favorite.” “Ho hum.” “Read no more by this author.”

I laughed out loud over some of her lengthier critiques.

“[m]ain character suffers from amnesia and someone is trying to kill her and she can’t figure out why—and I don’t care.”

“On page 4 author used the word eschatological—made me angry at author so I quit the book.”

“Heroine named Flick. Oh, please. Quit after 30 pages.”

Of one her favorite authors, she wrote: “Love all Amy Tan. Writes about mothers and daughters a lot.”

That one really got me. I was in my late 30s when it hit me that my mother was human, and not a being put on this planet to vex me personally. I’m sure she often felt the same about me. We grew closer, and I loved hearing her story, like when she told me one of the scariest things she ever did was learn to drive at the age of 28 when I was a toddler.

We did not completely understand each other, but it was my mother who taught me to read—not in the way of learning vowels and consonants and how they all work together, but in the magic of books and how to get lost in them. It was a love we shared. But after she was diagnosed with cancer and the treatments had worn her down, she lost interest in everything, even reading. During an ordeal comprised mostly of worsts, that was the worst of it. I stopped reading then too. It took all my energy to be utterly helpless.

Looking through my mother’s card file, I sometimes felt like the lone scholar of her life and wondered if I should be wearing gloves as I touched the index cards. One card I came across surprised me. Years ago, I wrote a book about moving in with my parents for a short time in my forties. To me, the book was dumb and hokey, so I didn’t tell anyone about it. But there was my name in the upper left-hand corner of a plain index card, with the title noted under it. She’d rated it 10 out of 10. There was no comment, but I like to think of it in the way she once described another book: “A mystery that’s a love story.” Maybe it’s enough to know that she rated me higher than Isabel Allende.

Mary Jo Pehl is a writer, comedian, and essayist. She works as an executive assistant in the University Senate Office.

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