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May 4, 2020

My Mother’s Gift to Me: Magic and Belonging Through Books

A Bets On pick that released in paperback earlier this year, Marjan Kamali’s novel, THE STATIONERY SHOP, is a powerful love story set against the political upheaval of 1953 Tehran. Marjan has wonderful childhood memories of her mother reading to her and her sister. It was a nightly ritual that allowed the two girls to better understand the English language, which they didn’t know quite as well as their mother did. At the age of six, Marjan received her first library card, a privilege that made her feel like an adult and connected to the people who had borrowed the same books before her. Eventually reading turned into a solitary act for Marjan, but she will always treasure the gift that her mother gave her --- magic and belonging through books.


The books were big and rectangular, filled with colorful pictures. From the library of our international school in Hamburg, Germany, my mother, sister and I carefully selected the week’s bounty. We hauled home our picks in a beige crochet market bag and spilled them out onto the sofa. They were prizes ready for unwrapping.

When evening fell, we perched on my mother’s lap, my sister on one knee and me on the other, and listened to my mother read words in English, a language we were only beginning to understand. She translated the story into Persian as she went along. We had recently moved to Germany from our home in Iran, and my sister and I didn’t know English the way our mother did. We asked questions, pointing to a rooster on the page or needing clarification about the flimsiness of the homes of the pigs. I was five years old during those first library book evenings. My mother’s nightly reading introduced me to a form of magic that would prove to be addictive.

The following year we moved again, this time from Germany to Kenya. One of the first things my mother did in our new city was drive to the Nairobi Public Library and register us for library cards. Membership! It felt so grown up and absolutely an honor to know that I belonged to an institution where, at the age of six, I had the privilege of not just selecting books but taking them out of that enormous, official-looking gray building on my own! Every book had a cream-colored rectangular card tucked neatly into a pocket glued to its inside back cover. On those cards were columns of date stamps of all the times the book had been due before. The final date was the date by which I vowed, through my membership, to return the book.

Kenya was different from Germany, which had been different from Iran. But the books were the same shape, the words provided the same wonder, and in the evenings my mother perched us on her lap and read to us in her familiar, comforting voice. I felt a sense of kinship with the readers who’d chosen the books before us. We may not have shared the same ethnicity or religion, but we clearly shared the same love for stories about children meandering in woods who had to befriend goblins to survive, about wolves who cooked perfect soups, and witches whose spells eradicated the selfish. Those previous readers clearly appreciated, like I did, the power of birds with colorful beaks to guide the lost home.

For some time after my sister and I learned to read on our own, my mother continued to read to us. Eventually, though, the nightly ritual ended. Reading turned into a solitary act with words not spoken out loud. But what my mother had given us was a gift of the best kind of addiction --- the kind that’s life-giving and lifelong. Today, no matter how vast the collection of books available for me to read may be and even when I’m writing my own books, it is the memory of my mother’s voice translating yarns in my ear and the feeling of comfort on her lap as we entered all kinds of portals into alternate universes together that carry me, always.