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December 14, 2014

Ann Hood on Mothers and Daughters and Books

Posted by emily

Ann Hood is the author of six works of fiction, including the bestseller THE KNITTING CIRCLE and, most recently, AN ITALIAN WIFE, a heartfelt journey through an Italian woman’s family of daughters, granddaughters and even great-granddaughters as they decide what it means to be Italian-American. Here, Ann talks about her perennially unrequited wish to receive books for Christmas --- a wish that persisted into adulthood, despite her own Italian-American mother’s insistence that she settle for more practical gifts.

There was the Christmas of the purple bicycle, the Christmas of the regrettable white pantsuit, the Christmas of the stereo with all its enormous speakers. But never as a child or a teenager or even a young adult did I get what I wanted most: books. My mother, a three-pack-a-day, black-coffee-drinking, curses-like-a-sailor Italian-American, would spend too much money at Christmas on a Ralph Lauren sweater the same color of green as my eyes or a blond Barbie and her lavender wardrobe case filled with tiny plastic shoes and matching outfits. But books? “A waste of money,” she’d say, blowing out a stream of Pall Mall smoke and tossing my neatly written Christmas list back at me. “Write down what you really want.”

What I really wanted was all the Little House on the Prairie books. Everything by Louisa May Alcott, the Betsy-Tacy series and, later, Agatha Christie --- both the Miss Marples and the Hercule Poirots --- and Victor Hugo and John Steinbeck. “What is it with you and these books?” my mother would ask, almost sadly and definitely baffled. “You can go to the library and read every book there. This is Christmas we’re talking about.” 

Neither of my parents grew up in a household with books. My father came from a farm town in Indiana, the second youngest of nine children, with a mother who had heart disease and a father who moonlighted as the chief of police; my mother grew up in the house her grandparents bought when they immigrated from Italy in the late 1800s, the second youngest of 10 children, surrounded by dozens of relatives who spoke only Italian and worked in the mills. They both dropped out of school at 16 --- he to join the navy, she to work in those mills, pushing artificial roses into stiff plastic stems or fastening buckles onto American Tourister.

They didn’t have time to read as children. There were too many people around, too much noise, too little interest in what a book might hold. As teenagers they worked, long hard hours, and at night wanted nothing more than to have beer and dance to Big Band music. That’s how they met and fell in love, at one of those dances. They married less than a year later, my mother a 19-year-old bride with hands already calloused from piecework, my father two years older, skinny in his white sailor suit with the cap cocked jauntily on his blond head.

I learned to read when I was four, and by the time I reached second grade, I was devouring the Reader’s Digests and Time magazines that landed in our mailbox. Our town didn’t have a library, but my parents bought a set of Golden Book Encyclopedias and a Reader’s Digest dictionary, and I read them from beginning to end, memorizing words and facts and spewing them at dinner to confused relatives. Each week I accompanied my mother to Ann and Hope, the local discount store where she bought curtains and pantyhose and plastic fruit. I used my allowance to buy Nancy Drew books, all 100 of them eventually, while my mother glared her disapproval. Didn’t I want a locket or a diary or a deck of cards? No, no, no. I only wanted books.

The year I was 14 and my book-loving cousin was 15, I saved up to buy her LOVE STORY for Christmas. As far as I know, I was the first member of my family to do this, to give a book as a Christmas gift. Before I wrapped it, I sat and read it straight through, half opened so as not to break the binding.