My mother and I held hands as we crossed the library parking lot together, our palms sweaty in the Atlanta summer heat. Her wedding ring crunched my right pinky finger as we walked. In my other hand, I clutched a summer reading list for the fourth grade.
Once inside, my mom flattened out the wrinkled list onto the circulation desk, running her finger down the list of books. "Oh, 'The Secret Garden,'" she said. "You will love this story." We pulled the green-covered book from the shelf, and I can still remember that musty smell: it was the scent of freedom.
I was nine, and my mom's every movement spoke the language of comfort. The sublime smell of her lotion, her infectious giggle, the way she tucked loose hairs behind my ears: these were the anchors that tethered me to the earth.
And she was right, I did love that book. I stayed up past bedtime devouring it in one gulp by night light. The crickets chirped loudly in the sweltering July air as I read, the pages catching with each turn on my lily-flowered comforter. My mom, dad, and older brother lie asleep down the hall, their chests rising and falling to the beat of their breath.
A few weeks later, my mom and I returned that book together. "Hop out and stick it in the slot," she called from her wood-paneled Buick station wagon — standard stay-at-home-mom fare in 1985 — as we pulled up to the curb. Schwunk, down the chute it went. I loved the sound.
But four months later, tragedy struck.
Wet, wet, everything was dripping wet. Hundreds of people gathered to bury my mother, as the raindrops poured on the outstretched umbrellas and hunched shoulders below. Our entire community was shocked. How could this happen? The minister spoke, and I stared at the Bible in her hands wondering, "Had I done something wrong?" It was a brain aneurysm. She died suddenly in her sleep at 43.
I felt unmoored. And over the next few years, I ached for my mother, longed for a sense of home. When I went to friends' houses, I saw their moms look at them with eyes that said, "I would die for you." I was jealous. There's something about a mother's gaze that makes every fear dissolve.
"You don't have a mom!" a friend's younger brother once yelled at me, as if I needed a reminder.
My remaining family was lovely, though, and I was grateful: a sweet and funny older brother, a sentimental and affectionate father. Later on, a kind stepmother and stepbrother joined our inner circle.
Soon after my mother died, our family started spending two weeks each summer on Squirrel Island, a tiny little community off the coast of Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Often there were fog-drenched days that allowed for a lot of reading. On one of our first trips there, I stepped up the stone staircase to the old wood-shingled library. I selected C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
Back in our rental home, the foghorns blared as I lost myself in the captivating, snow-covered world of Narnia. At night I stayed up late to finish the final chapters, feeling as if I were in my personal version of the fantasyland as I climbed into my creaking bed and finished the grand adventure.
On other family trips, I sat with my yellow Walkman in my lap, headphones on. My mind traveled through space and time, and even into the unknown territory of the fifth dimension, in Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle In Time."
These tomes became the touchstones of my life. I found answers to the most daunting questions — the ones I would have asked my mother — in literature. Whatever life threw at me, there was a book, if a not an entire shelf full, to guide me. For lessons on love, friendship, and marriage, I turned to Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety." For a wider understanding of social, economic, and racial injustice, Dave Eggers's "Zeitoun" served as my guide. And when I read Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," an accurate portrayal of what it feels like to lose a mother, I finally felt understood.
Now I live in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where I'm raising two children of my own. Our home library is my gift to them. On our shelf sits "The Invisible String" to show our interconnection with everyone, even those who have died. A few rows over, "The Kissing Hand" reminds them that I miss them while they are school. A nonfiction book on spiders is there to teach my son that yes, while terrifying, spiders also serve a meaningful purpose in the world.
Reading books has always given me solace, but excitement, too. When I need a dose of adventure myself, I turn to Haruki Murakami. When I dive into the bizarre and enthralling fantasy of tales like "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," the words on the page envelop me with warmth — like the feeling of the sun on your skin after a long month of dreary rain. I feel warm, bright, and whole. Like a maternal guide, these literary journeys remind me: I'm just a teeny speck in a gigantic, spinning web of existence. I'm far from the center of the universe, I'm just one of billions of beings in its infinite course. I feel the great vastness of life itself, but at the same time, connected and secure. In a word: home.
I carry books with me everywhere, like a child with a security blanket. They collect in my car, my purse, in piles on the floor next to my bed, much to the chagrin of my minimalist husband. There's never a tablet, an iPhone, or a Kindle. The pages don't speak to me that way. It's the smell. It's a bone-crushing embrace from my mother, like a waft of the Southern fried chicken or blueberry cobbler from my youth. It says, "You're wanted here, just exactly as you are."
My daughter turned nine this past summer. I named her Marina, after my mom — she has the same blonde hair and brown eyes, a wrinkle in her nose when she smiles. She is a voracious reader, too. I took her to the little library in our small Marin County town, so much like the one on Squirrel. We checked out "The Secret Garden" together. I picked up the book, stuck my nose between the pages, and inhaled.
But Marina told me she couldn't get into the story. She wasn't quite ready for it yet, she said. So we returned it, unread. Schwunk.
But it's waiting for her.
Like bright flames crackling in a fireplace, or a knowing look of maternal love, I know that story will take her in one day, wrapping her in arms of wise counsel and total acceptance. Whenever she's ready, it will be there.
Jackie Ashton is freelance writer based in San Francisco. She's currently working on her first book.