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Ode to A Bookish Mom

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Last week, after I gave my debut reading of The Hundred-Foot Journey at Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, I grilled two marinated shoulders of lamb and three rabbits, and served them to a dozen friends and family members at a long table. After dinner, while we were hitting the cookies, my father launched into the hair-raising story of how he, his sister, and his parents traveled from Alesund, Norway, to Newfoundland, Canada, in 1942.

My grandfather, the Portuguese consul general in Norway at the time, had just been evicted by the Quisling Government of Nazi-occupied Norway, and the harrowing trip for my 12-year-old dad and his younger sister, Maria, involved, among other things, being fired bombed in Berlin while the wild animals of the damaged Berlin zoo ran through the streets and the top floors of their hotel opposite burned; sitting in basement wine cellars surrounded by nothing but drunk Nazi officers and a waiter whispering to them in English; delayed trains in Bavaria because of bombed tracks; my aunt catching small pox (or chicken pox, a family dispute over this) as their train pulled through Civil War ravaged Spain; and a British submarine stopping their hospital ship, while they were crossing the Atlantic, to arrest the ship telegrapher as a German spy.

We were mesmerized by my father's story. It was the first time he had ever told the story from beginning to end like this. As my friends later remarked, "We now know where the storytelling comes from." There is some truth in that. My father is an artist who had to become a businessman, due to the times he lived in, and in some ways I am living out his dreams.

But in less obvious ways I owe much of my writing career to my mother, Jane Sweet Morais. My Mom was born into a peculiar upper East Side family; her father bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1927 and the '29 crash took him down pretty effectively. So among the many dramas her immediate family lived through, there was this epic story-line arc: the Sweets were a downwardly mobile WASP family in 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s New York.

But they held on to some core beliefs, including the belief that blessings do come from a top-drawer education and a good book. So what I picked up from my mother was this: when all is chaos, there is always the serenity to be found behind the walls of a well-told story and a lively imagination.

I can recall the precise moment when this message was passed, like a torch, from her soul to mine. It was 1964. We were living in Zurich, Switzerland, and it was the summer of our "home leave." (Every four years my Dad's company would pay for us to return to the US/Canada.) My mother had a phobia about flying, so while my Dad flew ahead with my oldest brother, John (aged 10), my mother took brother Jim (8), Vasco (6), and myself (4) to New York via the SS Rotterdam.

On that journey across the Atlantic, I ate long spinach for the very first time (the ship steward told us it was seaweed), largely terrified by the waves crashing on the dining room porticos when we were in rough waters. No matter how much the wind was blowing, however, my mother took us up to the deck, where she tucked my brothers into the deck chairs with tartan blankets, before reclining in her own chair. I, the youngest, was allowed to curl up on her lap, safe and cosy under the heavy blanket and her warmth. And then she would crack open the binding.

Every day, in her girlish voice, Mom read aloud to us a Mary Poppins book by P.L. Travers, until we had crossed the entire Atlantic and the Statue of Liberty sailed into view and she burst into tears at seeing her beloved New York.

In this science and productivity-obsessed age we live in, Mom ensured my brothers and I became fundamentalist believers in long hot baths, in languorous hours stretched out on beach towels, in sleepy afternoons spent with feet up on the couch and a good book. Particularly during the sad and emotionally tumultuous moments of life, for that precisely is when we most need to be transported into the world of story-telling and imagination. They allow us to cope and put things in perspective and dream of a better world.

At age 79, my Mom is still a publisher's dream: she is a member of three different book clubs, and possibly Netflix's best customer. She is, of course, not without her foibles. A Jungian analyst with higher degrees from Smith College, Columbia University and the Jung Institute in Zurich, she is still not the person to call when you need the unadorned facts of a situation. Facts are so irritating and are inclined to get in the way of the drama to be highlighted and savored in the retelling of a tale.

But I recently finished Cervantes' Don Quixote, and this literary classic underscores the importance of what my mother unwittingly passed on: an imagination and a good sense of story are the greatest gifts of human life. They imbue harsh reality with a spiritual framework and allow us to process the enormous events of our earth-time.