A Simple, Lasting Legacy

A Simple, Lasting Legacy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

A Simple, Lasting Legacy

The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it.
~James Bryce

Sometimes, I think my mother and I are still connected by way of a highlighter pen. As her way of reminding me to embrace the written word, the highlighter was one of the things she left me when she died. All these years later, I feel like she is with me whenever I read and highlight something that surges into my heart and mind.

She was a timid highlighter—a dot at the beginning of an idea and a dot at the end of the phrase. I highlight boldly!

My mother loved to read, and she taught me to look for words that demanded my attention and words that required careful thought. My earliest recollection of written words came from a large collection of the Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. I must have been a toddler when my mother began reading chapters to my sister and me every day. Through those early books, she gently led us into a world of imagination and wonder. While my mother’s joy of reading and her curiosity about the world led her in many literary directions, it also helped to instill in her children the need and necessity of following our interests and appreciating the variety of books available to us.

She read wherever she could and whenever she could. I do too. I read for the friendship. I read for the mental conversation. I read for that invisible, intangible connection to a kindred spirit. Along the way, I have found that the reading becomes a safe place where both new and familiar thoughts can circle my mind and keep me company. I read because I love to, but I highlight because I have to.

Recently, when I was going through a box of my mother’s papers, I found a cartoon she cut out of the newspaper years ago. It shows a man and woman sitting in bed reading books. The man says, “You’ve been staring at that book every night for a year and a half!” She replies, “If I read the next page it will be the end of the best book I’ve ever read, and I just can’t bear to say goodbye.” The cartoon makes me smile. I’ve read books like that. It is one of the reasons I highlight. I finish the book, but my highlighting helps the characters shine through and gives me easy access to the words I love.

If I could highlight an entire character, sometimes I think I would. There have been some so memorable that every now and then the circumstances in my life call them to mind. I have lived with them through confrontation, shared their joy and heartache, and, hopefully, learned a thing or two along the way.

Like my mother, my passion to highlight along with my inability to “deface” a book that does not belong to me, however, make me a stranger to the public library, a preferred customer at bookstores, and a recognizable face at rummage sales. Some of my highlighted books eventually find their way to second-hand bookstores. Their phrases have found their place, the track from mind to heart complete. They are now part of me, and although years later I may not be able to quote them verbatim, I know their message. So, I will not apologize to the person who ultimately receives my used books. At issue is not that the book has been defaced, but that it has been appreciated.

Perhaps it is the simple things that shape us. The original Oz books from my childhood remain on my bookshelves today, and although the highlighter pen my mother gave me was used up long ago, I will always be thankful that the simple legacy of her joy of reading and her reverence for the written word remains.

~Pamela Underhill Altendorf

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