From a single word, the world

Most women I know have at least one treasured keepsake – be it a fancy silver dish or a homely piece of measuring tape – passed on to them from their mothers. The item is not about money. Its value is not counted in dollars. It is a legacy of memory, a place keeper for them in a family where they know all the hand-me-down stories and, most of all, where they know they belong.

As such, these keepsakes – call them heirlooms if you like – deserve the special link they form with people and family histories over the decades.

My mother left me several. None was an heirloom in the Rockefeller sense of the word. But all have kept me very pleasant company across several decades.

The most valuable inheritance she left me, however, didn’t come in a velvety box or a plush little jewelry bag. Summed up plainly, it is a love of reading that colors my days and has colored most of my existence.

There is an almost tangible pulse between me and the material when my hand is on a book. I know that’s part of my heirloom. And I am grateful for it. There’s also a zest for quick answers and an eagerness for new questions when the words in my hand appear in a newspaper or magazine that’s more about today, tomorrow and today again than about any complex story or pressing modern-day issue. Variety is never a problem.

I remember when I first learned to read. My mother taught me, almost accidentally, as it turned out. And I think mostly to shut me up.

I was about 3 years old and she and I would take a short nap each afternoon. She would stretch out on the bed and I would lie down beside her, cozied up as she read to herself from McCall’s or the Ladies Home Journal. In those days, those were big magazines, in size as well as popularity. The pages featured long columns of print that could keep a 3-year-old busy until sleep took over.

Early on, however, I became fascinated by the way the little pods and puddles of symbols often repeated themselves on the page. And the pod that fascinated me most was the one that said “the.” What could that be? I wondered as I followed it up and down the columns Obviously, it had to be important. It showed up more often than any other pod on the page.

You can imagine how disappointed I was when my mother decoded it for me.

Still, the puzzle was solved. The code was penetrated. Other pods and pools of meaning burst into my consciousness. And the process began. I was learning to read. A life of magic that didn’t require an adult to play had begun. And it had begun with a word as prosaic as “the.”

Now, in the wake of the Boston Marathon and the madness that erupted there, I hear the echo of my mother’s voice, silent for decades, reviewing the wildly erupting violence of my grandchildren’s day. I hear it because she taught me to read that single word “the.” And we went on from there.

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