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December 25, 2012

Mark Sullivan: Christmas, Books, and My Mom

Posted by tom

Mark Sullivan is the author of eight thrillers, including PRIVATE GAMES, which he co-wrote with James Patterson. His latest effort is ROGUE, a stand-alone novel, and the newest book in the Private series, PRIVATE BERLIN, releases on January 29th. Here, Mark offers a touching tribute to his mom, Betty Jane Walker Sullivan, who passed away in October. Betty Jane was passionate about so many things: her family, Christmas, a good laugh --- and, of course, books. In fact, she was reading and telling jokes just hours before her passing. Although she will be missed dearly on this Christmas Day, Mark knows she will be with her family in spirit and eagerly awaiting all the books they will be unwrapping.

Betty Jane Walker Sullivan loved many things, among them her family, Christmas, a good laugh, and books. My mom died in early October, reading and cracking jokes to within a few hours of her passing.  In her entire life she never met a stranger, a fact that I attribute in large part to her voracious reading habits.

Mom was 75 when she died, and had been devouring between three and five books a week for more than 55 years. Take an average of four a week and she read more than 11,000 books, mostly novels. She read everything she could get her hands on, from mystery, romance and suspense novels to the latest literature. I can’t think of a single time I saw her without a book.

As you might expect, mom was a favorite of librarians and bookstore owners, because she’d march into the stores on Monday and buy a stack, and on Friday she’d donate them all to the library. As Christmas approached, she’d decorate the house with characters from Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and bought even more books, wrapped them, and put them under the tree.

I went back recently and looked at old Sullivan family photographs of Christmas past and long past. In early childhood, my brother, sister and I might be playing with that year’s toy, but always, somewhere in the background or at our feet was a pile of books. Everyone got them. Everyone gave them.

As we got older, the toys disappeared, but the books didn’t. They were there amid the clothes and ski and hockey equipment, and, in later photographs, up on the mantelpiece above our stockings.

When I moved away, I got lucky and found a lady who loved reading as much as I did. Our sons were born, and they too became ardent readers. When my mom and dad flew out to Montana for Christmas, it was a given that the presents exchanged among us would all be books. They brought along a canvas bag just to carry them home.

On Christmas morning, when a present that was obviously a book was passed to Betty Jane to open, she’d get as excited as a kid, rip off the wrapping and run her fingers down the cover as if there were magic inside. Which of course there was.

As one of the boys would explain why they’d bought her the book, she’d listen intently and then say, “Well, I can’t wait to read it.”

By Christmas afternoon, while everyone else was still going through the stacks trying to decide which book to read first, my mom would already be three quarters of the way through her first one. Book number two was usually begun sometime after dinner. If the book was good, she was riveted and couldn’t stop talking about it during breaks. If it was less than par, she’d roll her eyes, but still fight through to the end. My mom felt it was important to hear people out.

“You never know,” she said. “Sometimes the end changes the whole thing.”

She loved mystery and intricate plots, but characters and settings transported her.

“Every book is an adventure, a whole world you’d never imagined before,” my mom told me a few weeks before she died. “There are people in them that you’d never meet if you didn’t read. And all of them have their troubles and their joys and way of seeing the world. I have taken a lot of comfort in having them in my life. It’s like you have all these people out there you’ve gotten friendly with on a trip, rarely stay in touch, but have good memories of. Does that make sense?”

It did and does. Because of her constant exposure to different people and cultures through books, my mother was one of the most open people you’d ever meet, and the funniest. Betty Jane didn’t care where you came from or where you went to school or how much money you did or did not have.

My mom greeted strangers and old friends the same way, warmly and wanting to know about them as much as she did a new character in one of her novels. It helped of course if you read and could talk books. If you did, you’d just made a friend for life. If you didn’t, you were quietly pitied.

She was rarely effusive in her praise, but she loved the fact that I became a novelist. And I’m grateful that she lived long enough to see me fulfill my dream of becoming a bestselling author, a dream that she instilled on those Christmas mornings all those years ago.

Betty Jane will be missed this Christmas morning, but I know her spirit will be hovering around, looking over our shoulders as we open our presents, eager to see what books we’ve gotten, running her fingers down the covers, eager for us to dive in and let the magic unfold.