Brett Butler and Mum

My loneliness was still there, but it was getting louder, and easier to dance to.

— Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise

Her favorite thing to do when she visits is to peruse my bookshelves. They rarely change — everything squared safely away in categories, alphabetized, hardbacks with hardbacks, paper with paper. But, she looks at them every time as if they’re new, and she says, “I just love this.” For a long time, I thought she, like me, loved the visual, the idea, of stacks of collected books, waiting to be read and reread. It’s so great a site even for me that on my way from the kitchen to the living room, dinner tray in my hand, sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the shelves and remind myself how much I have to learn, and how my education is right there, perfectly ordered, ready. Recently, though, I heard my mum’s words differently. She’s not marveling at the books, or their order, or anything at all to do with them specifically. Her expression, I realized, says: “I created a reader.”

My mum and I have always shared books. She’s often mentioned how she read to my sister and I in the womb, that her one major goal in life was for her children to love books. We do — my sister and I are big readers, thanks to our mum. I remember when my sister and I were maybe 11 and 13, mum would take us secondhand book shopping, and we’d run into the book exchanges in Shepparton so we could be first to grab whatever Stephen Kings had come in that week. In those days, my sister and I shared a lot less. Or, perhaps, while we didn’t mind passing books around, we knew early the thrill of book ownership.

In recent years, mum and I, too, share fewer books. Strangely, the woman who once handed down Kurt Vonnegut, JP Donleavy, and Joseph Heller, has started reading trashy crime novels almost exclusively. As much as she knows about Kilgore Trout, she knows even more about James Patterson’s Alex Cross. She’ll sit on the couch and fly through the latest Harlan Coben, and yet the copy of The Fixer I gave her a few months back still has a bookmarks in it’s center. I don’t know quite what happened, but, as mum would always tell me, it doesn’t matter what you read (I was addicted to Dean Koontz for a while, my sister Anne M. Martin), as long as you’re reading. I’m praying, however, that my trash addiction passed with adolescence.

A decade ago, when I had just turned 18, I handed my mum a copy of Brett Butler’s Knee Deep in Paradise. I loved the book; Butler was on TV at the time, in Grace Under Fire, a show I watched only really when I remembered it was on. Bulter’s story is about growing up in the Deep South, coming to terms with her self-abuse, finding new respect for her parents, and herself. It’s a poetic, shocking read; I knew my mum would love it as much as I did. Something I didn’t think too much about when I gave mum the book was the little lead pencil markings I’d made inside next to passages I wanted to remember, that stood out to me as particularly meaningful. In the book, Brett writes a lot about her mother, intelligent and well-meaning, but scarily unstable. Despite her mother’s complications, Brett lets us know her mother was instrumental in her success. Brett writers of her mother’s unflinching compassion, her interest in her children’s lives, her encouragement of her kids to be unique, educated, and open-minded. My mother is complex in her own ways, and her philosophies mirror those of Brett’s mum. I underlined passages relevant to that. I also underlined passages I felt mirrored my experience – Brett had learned from her mistakes and perhaps, this early in my life, I could, too. I underlined passages about drinking, about bad men, about wanting to crawl away from life. The sad opening paragraphs of chapter 14, I’ve not only underlined, but bordered with five-pointed stars. I was a kid, really, at the time, and knew very little about what was to come. But I realize now, a rocky teenagehood, completely outside of my family home, prepped me early.

My mum handed the book back to me close to tears. We’d had a strong relationship to that point, but there was a lot we didn’t know about each other. She was the cool mum who hated doing the cleaning, and bought me mixed drink cans and took me to parties because that’s what cool mums did. To her, I was the rebellious free spirit, who looked after herself despite her wildness. Brett’s book showed us each other’s lies. She read my underlines, and began to know me. It turns out, we were more alike than we let ourselves realize.

My mom and I share fewer books now, but we rarely go a day without revealing something about ourselves to each other. Like Brett’s mum, mine is there for me, always willing to give, to help, to rescue. Her complexities are my complexities. She created not only a reader, but a woman. The books on my shelf, their importance, their order, and their underlined passages, reveal her as much as they do me.