Mom’s Sea of Words

This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.

It’s been a long while since I wrote in this series, but Marcus texted me this morning saying that my mom sounded like she’d been cool, and by god she was. Then I looked at my list of posts in this series and decided I need to tell you more about my mom.

Back when I wrote about my mom’s birding habit, I told you how I’d based her eulogy on her favorite books (her bird field guide being the one for that post). Now that I look at the other books I talked about at her little service, I’m seeing that they’re all reference books, maybe not directly but certainly in spirit. That’s because it’s how she saw the world: as various opportunities to learn.

I know, nearly everyone’s mom is or was a big reader.  Before the Internet were those book-buying services, and I think every housewife I knew had the same James Michener and Clan of the Cave Bear books on their shelves.  

(I totally guessed at those books and then found this picture.)

My mom, though, good grief with the reading. She was a housewife living in the country without many friends, and lonely, as I remember her telling me: even when my dad was alive he wasn’t home much except to sleep.  But reading wasn’t just comfort: she had a frustrated intellectual curiosity that would have made her a top-notch academic, but she didn’t “get to go to college,” as she used to say. So she read. Everything.    


One section of Mom’s library was a set of actual reference books, really the books she loved the most. You know the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED), right? It’s a set of books that comprise an English dictionary (clearly), with several columns and even pages devoted to each word: its derivation, details about its usage, just everything anyone could want to know about that one word.

You have to have a giant library to hold the OED in physical form; I think it’s 20 volumes now, so my sister, Kim, so smartly gave Mom an abridged version. Mom would turn to her OED seems like once per conversation, once per thought when she was on a roll. She had the volume she had just used on her living room coffee table, open and ready.

(I’m sure it’s in the pile of books here. Note that no matter how nice her living room, there was always room for a dog on the sofa.)

A Sea of Words 

This dictionary, A Sea of Words, is also one I talked about at Mom’s ceremony: it’s one of several reference books to support a set of historical fiction novels, casually called by enthusiasts the Aubrey/Maturin series. Kim introduced Mom and me to these 22 books, and we read them at various times together, and separately, and talked about them on end.

The series is about the adventures of a British sea captain and his surgeon during the Napoleonic wars, which is totally not my thing, but Kim found it because she loved sailing, and Mom loved it because of the language, and I loved it because it’s kind of like Star Trek (a topic we’d discuss).  

Mom also had a cookbook based on the series, and a barometer in her window, right next to her tallest fig tree (Ficus Bengamanus, she always said) with a bird’s nest she’d carefully placed in its branches, complete with bluebird egg fragments. She shared the surgeons’ fascination with nature and his good humor about the captain’s frequent language faux pas, but she was so far from being snobby about this stuff. She really did read with joy.

She would read at you though, whether you wanted to listen or not, and I inherited that obnoxious habit.

Infinite Jest

I can’t even think about books and my mom without this one popping into my head, whether you consider it a reference book, or … however you might wrap your head around this one. It was one of Mom’s favorite books, and Kim’s, and mine, too, at different points in our lives.

It’s partly about how hard it is to be human, and the author killed himself a few years after writing it. I’d spent a weekend hanging out with him when he was a guest speaker at my grad school, which is strange to think about, partly because he was writing the book (or at least planning it) when he visited. I know this because of how the ending of the book mirrors a movie we were watching, that he stood up during and went to take a shower, inexplicably at the time. Now I know. I won’t spoil the ending, though. Of the book; we know his, sadly.

One of his characters, who repeatedly tries to kill herself, describes her desperate feeling as akin to being trapped on a window ledge of a skyscraper, with behind you a raging fire and before you a terrible death by falling. You pick the jump option only when the fire becomes unbearable. Kim and Mom and I talked a lot about this, and perhaps Kim felt this way during her suicide attempts. Or perhaps she wasn’t feeling anything at all.

My point here is that Mom and Kim and I loved Infinite Jest so much because the author describes the human condition clearly. Just like Mom loved finding out as much as she could about the world, she also loved, even cherished, clear revelations about what the human experience is really like.

Famously (among the three of us), she said she wished she had a shrink-ray gun so she could shrink this book down to a tiny version and wear it on a chain so it would always be close to her.  Seriously, a book about drug addiction and suicide, with 388 endnotes—my mom wanted to wear this near her heart.  

There’s a lot of dry humor in this book, which Mom had a lot of, herself. When Marcus texted me saying that Mom seems like she’d been cool, I thought of the time we were visiting Kim in London, eating Christmas dinner, and Mom told us we couldn’t have any pudding until we ate our meat. (We were vegetarians and she wasn’t, at that point, and she smiled wryly as she put the “pudd” on the table.) Really, whose mom quotes Pink Floyd in exactly the right context?

Back to my point though.  The biggest reason Kim and Mom and I loved this book so much—and it’s the same reason we loved that seafaring book series and a bunch of books we introduced each other to—is because we shared them all together.  We were very different types of people, but when we found something we all three enjoyed, we loved it especially because we could enjoy it together. 

I wish we’d all three spent more time together, but near the end of Kim’s life I tried to stay away so Kim could have Mom as a safe zone, no questions asked, no arguments.  I’ll never know if that, or any of the decisions I made regarding Kim those years, was the right one. 

Well, this post is sliding toward my sister like nearly all the posts in this series, while it should be about Mom. I’ll end with the affirmative to Marcus that yes, my mom was cool, and you can tell that from her books!

19 thoughts to “Mom’s Sea of Words”

  1. I’ve never read Infinite Jest, and likely never will, but I’ll always associate it and Wallace, with you because you must have mentioned it (or possibly raved?) very early on in our acquaintance and how important it was to you and it’s always stuck with me. Same as Phish and The Dead! It’s lovely to have those connections with your family, I had them with Dad and they’re always a trigger for missing him, the inability to share that connection is really painful.

    1. I hear you for sure. It’s magical I got to meet your mom, at least. Why would you say you’d never read this more amazing book? You have the intellectual stamina for it, certainly.

      1. I don’t really have any interest in reading books where people are miserable, no matter how well-written, and certainly nothing that requires intellectual stamina. I used to and then I thought why am I making myself miserable? I know people are unhappy, I know the world sucks, but when I have time and I want to read a book I want to enjoy myself and be happy not be miserable with them. I had an epiphany on a flight from Stockholm to Bangkok where I cried so much reading a book and suddenly thought WTF am I doing to myself? So I stopped reading books like that and frankly I don’t miss them. I feel a bit ashamed about not reading some of these deep and influential books, but not enough to read them.

        1. I actually totally on team easy-read these days, too. Well, at least not challenging to the psyche the way this book is. I hope I’ll swing back to team wowsa-read one day. Poor you with that flight!

      2. But I loved the Aubrey/Maturin series and we have most of them at home here. I re-read them again a year or so ago and didn’t even blurb over the battle scenes like I used to, so I do have some intellectual rigour 😉

  2. You inspire me to get back to my book – after recovery from the knee surgery, after the holidays, after tidying up the house, on hold from everything else, after the travel season ends… (lol). I have recently been reminded of all the books and authors my Mom shared with me. Somehow I’d forgotten it for a while, but lately I’ve been rereading (or adding to the “to be reread” pile) many of the authors my mom introduced me to – Shirley Jackson, Pearl Buck, Poe, Dickens, various poets. It’s sure to be a chapter in the book – someday.

    1. You know there’s software you could be getting started with, if just a start would help you. I’d so love to see you write, Renee!

  3. Infinite Jest is on my TBR list. I can’t believe you got to meet David Foster Wallace. What a mind he had. I feel like I would have had a lot in common with your mom–birds, books, “various opportunities to learn..”

    But this paragraph: “My point here is that Mom and Kim and I loved Infinite Jest so much because the author describes the human condition clearly. Just like Mom loved finding out as much as she could about the world, she also loved, even cherished, clear revelations about what the human experience is really like.”

    I’m so glad I found you, or rather you found me.🖤

    1. We should thank Mark Metruska—I started following him quite randomly (well, because he’s good), and then bombarded him with questions about blogging, including who he thinks I would enjoy following. Good advice, there. 🙂 And if it makes you feel any better about the blind luck meeting DFW, after spending that weekend hanging out, he went and wrote Infinite Jest and I basically started worshiping him, so when he came to my next town to give a reading and I tried to say something to him after the signing, like “let’s go to a diner” I just could not. I was so chicken, and he was so otherworldly. Man I should have! I used to have two copies of that book on my shelf, the signed one and the dog-eared one with tons of post-it notes. If you read a paper version, I highly recommend post-its.

        1. I don’t know what you know about Infinite Jest, but not only is it not told in chronological order, but the years are marked by corporate sponsors (the Year of the Whopper, for example). That’s the primary task when taking notes while reading that sucker, to figure out the order of the years so you can tell when what you’re reading takes place compared to other chapters. This is book is for note-taking lovers.

  4. I had a hunch that the human lucky enough to hangout with you as a child, had to be one of the brightest stars in our galaxy. Thank you Shelly for sharing this wonderful moment in time about your Moms energy, that truly lives on! 🫶🏽