How My Mother Made Me a Classics Nerd

There’s quite a few things I can attribute to my mother’s influence over these 20-something years of being her kid: a love of musicals, an appreciation for rewriting classic Disney songs to fit any situation, a funny-sounding sneeze in the peak of allergy season. But many of those qualities pale in comparison to the way she helped shape me into being a reader, one classic literature tome at a time.

I don’t remember the day I realized I loved to read, nor which books first stoked that interest in me. If you were to ask my mother, she’d tell you that I liked memorizing the names of animals and plants, rattling them off unlabeled charts with ease even as a toddler. (Would that that quality had stuck around for my university years.)

I do remember, however, the first book that I actively wanted to reread immediately after finishing it for the first time—Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Eight years old and enthralled by the illustrated children’s version of the novel, I read it over and over again. Pip and Estella may not have been the best of characters for a kid to call her favourites, but I loved them anyway.

The children’s format wasn’t fancy or complicated, just part of a hardbound set that my mother had picked up for me at our local bulk goods store. Among the other titles: The Call of the Mohicans, A Tale of Two Cities, Gulliver’s Travels. The large text and illustrations helped situate me into stories and time periods that I hadn’t known existed, and the sight of these books, their white spines lined up neatly on my small shelf, became my first touchstone as I started exploring classic literature with my mother. See, she’s a bit of a classics nerd herself.

I spent my childhood listening to her quote from her favourite Edgar Allan Poe poems (It was many and many a year ago/In a kingdom by the sea/That a maiden there lived whom you may know/By the name of Annabel Lee.), and spent more than one night frightened of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Shakespeare’s plays were my first introduction to drama and wordplay, as my mother gave me first the children’s prose version, then the original plays themselves. She’d later regret talking about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as 10-year-old me decided to check it out of the library one day after school. This would later become one of my favourite anecdotes to remind her of when she would shake her head at the newest Lisa Kleypas novel on my shelf.

Through my mother’s genuine interest and delight in mythology, I learned of both the popular and more obscure European myths, balancing the Western-centric lens with stories of Filipino folklore that she would share with me on lazy Sunday afternoons. I read The Odyssey, engaging more with the magic than Odysseus himself, and I loved the story best when it involved Circe and Penelope. I cried about Orpheus and his foolish decision in the Underworld the same year that I learned my multiplication tables, my tears staining the pages of the illustrated book of Greek myths my mother bought from the clearance section at Waldenbooks, and later the gold-edged hardcover she gave me after a good report card.

You see, that is how much my mother loves stories. I was the lucky recipient of her enthusiasm, and my interest in the written word developed thanks to her commitment to getting me access to art. I remember her bringing home comic versions of Faust and War and Peace that she’d found at the dollar store on her way home. She never shied away from the many questions I had as I tried to understand these complex stories, even though she hadn’t read or studied them. She would read them after I had fallen asleep, and listen to my chattering about how mean Mephistopheles was to Faust the next day.

As I revisited these books through my adolescence, there was already a clear affection in my re-evaluation of their plots and characters, despite being tested on them in school. I’d grown to be a fast reader by that point, zipping through books too quickly for her to keep up, but I still told her about what I was reading. While my opinions on Romeo and Juliet might have changed—though my dislike of Jane Eyre remains the same—these books will always be tied to the care my mother showed me in those early years. They’re part of the reason I ended up as a creative writing major in university, and why I’m a writer today.

It’s a gift that I’m still unwrapping, with layers that become more obvious as I grow older and start making my own life. They’re moments in time that we remind each other of, as she starts to pick books off my shelves to read, as I race through novels based on the stories she’d taken pains to introduce me to in childhood. We didn’t have much when I was growing up, but we did have this, our shared love of literature cobbled together by clearance stacks and libraries, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

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