By Tamara J. Collins
My dad’s side of the family called Marlboro, Vermont, home for over two hundred years. I called it home for fourteen years. I was an only child, and my parents quickly learned that introducing me to our local libraries was a wise idea. My father would plead with librarians to allow me to take out twenty books per week and proudly assure them that I would read them all. He was right. I did read them all. I devoured the stories the way an ultramarathon runner can eat an entire pizza or box of pasta.
My father taught me how to read when I was around three years old. The first book that I read on my own was The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone.
For her part, his mother subscribed to Cricket Magazine and had it sent to her house, where she would urge me to read it. Marianne Carcus, whose intent was to create The New Yorker for children, founded it in September 1973. Years later, I would subscribe to The New Yorker.
I remember the beautiful artwork on the covers and inside. There were sections of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, games, and puzzles. I would read it cover to cover, rereading each page before moving onto the next.
When I was in Kindergarten, I wrote my first story, “The Ant Called Bant.” My mother encouraged my crazy creative cranium and my love of reading and telling stories. She obtained library cards from two libraries. One was in the town where she worked, and I attended elementary school: The Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro. The other, The Dummerston Library, was closer to our house and we went there on Saturday mornings.
Both of my parents used books as rewards. When I received good grades, achieved a new brownie scout or figure skating badge, or had a terrible day, they would reward me with a trip to the bookstore or more than most kids were allowed to order from the Scholastic school order. I was never limited to one book and often would come home with three new ones.
My mother passed away two weeks before Christmas when I was fourteen. Just over a year earlier, we had toured Europe for two weeks with her mother. We visited the homes of my favorite authors: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare. And from London, we rode the Trafalgar bus through Brussels, Amsterdam, Rhineland, Munich, Innsbruck, Lucerne, and Paris. We also sailed down the Rhine River and floated around Venice. I had no sign that she was ill. Though I did think it was odd that she wanted to lay down in our hotel room after dinner instead of going out for an evening walk. My grandmother would retreat to the hotel room with mom. I would find other adults from the tour bus to allow me to join them in exploring our surroundings.
The cancer had been there a while, undetected. The disease was silently snowballing within mom’s five foot four athletic frame. Her doctor suggested that maybe she was pregnant. She was in her late forties, and this notion made her laugh. He indicated that her headaches and tiredness was from consuming too much caffeine. My mother couldn’t a 12 oz can of diet coke in a day. She was more of a half a cup of coffee or can of diet soda person. Mom was one of those health freak types. You know bought our food from the farmer’s markets, food co-ops, and we always ate a lot of fresh fruit, veggies, cheeses, pita bread, granola, yogurt, and things that would delight a nutritionist which was no surprise considering that was a subject mum had studied.
So when the doctor said she was either pregnant or drinking too much caffeine, my mother disagreed on both accounts. As soon as she switched physicians, from her doctor to my father’s doctor, it was too late. She had stage IV breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy. And she tried every experimental drug recommended in addition to chemotherapy, but disease raged on and spread to her lungs. Her breasts were gone, Frankenstein-like stitches covered where they once were. Her hair was gone. But the light in her green eyes and smile were still there as she tried to prepare me for what life would be like without her.
She knew the end was coming. She was at peace. She tried to talk to me about what life would be like without her. I refused to accept it. I thought if I acted like she was okay, then she would be okay. Because if I refused to acknowledge it, then it wouldn’t come true. So, I didn’t help her around the house. I didn’t make her last six months easier. I wasn’t a good daughter. I thought in my stubborn head that if I pretended as if she wasn’t sick and dying that she would recover. But she didn’t improve. She was strong enough to hold on in her hospital room until my father and her cat that I snuck in, a grey cat named Smokey Robinson, and I arrived and then she told us she loved us and closed her eyes holding my one of my hands and one of my father’s hands, and she was gone. That day was the first time I ever saw my father cry.
Mom’s death was devastating. She was my best friend. Television helped me hold onto my denial. I could escape into a story for a short amount of time. My inability to face the truth came from uncertainty and fear of what life would be like without her. Reading is what helped pull me back into reality.
During my denial period, my father’s mother passed away. Six months after my own, but it was not unexpected. (Her husband had passed away before I was born). She was old. She did not manage her diabetes well. My father encouraged her countless times to at least walk from her living room to her mailbox each day, but she ignored his advice. She was stubborn — a family trait.
My father drove nearly three hours to bring me home from the summer boarding school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, for her funeral. He needed me to be there. I had only seen my father cry once before, the day my mother died.
My grades slipped after I lost my mother and my grandmother. I was no longer an A student; I was a below-to-average student. However, I continued to turn to books: The Interview with a Vampire and North of Boston. I wrote poems. I filled a black sketchbook with them.
In high school, I wrote my first novel. It still needs polishing, and I have never submitted it to anyone for review. The only person who has ever read part of it was a classmate who urged me to keep writing.
The summer before my junior year, my father remarried. I lived in the girl’s dorm on the campus at Vermont Academy. The following year, I moved to my stepmother’s house in Durham, NH, and switched schools. I took my first journalism class at my new school, and I wrote features articles, mostly music reviews of albums and concerts for the student newspaper, The Mouth of the River.
In college, I studied with James Krasner and Charlotte Bacon, who both furthered my passion for books, reading, and writing. When my financial strain became obvious, Bacon convinced me to stay in school and to keep reading and writing, telling me she would feed me if I got hungry. I took a couple of journalism courses. I wrote features articles for the student paper, The New Hampshire. I also worked in sales, then sales management, and then I pivoted into working in public relations and publicity while in college full-time.
When I was twenty, my father, who had continued my mother’s tradition of rewarding me with new books, passed away. His death by heart attack was sudden and unexpected. I had spent the prior weekend in Vermont with him and my stepmother. Again, there was no sign that he was ill.
Again, I lost myself in books: Anthem, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. I kept a journal. When that journal ran out of its lined pages, I threw it away and started a new one, and the process repeated itself. I wish I had kept them. I have often thought this over the past couple of years.
I wish I had kept them so that I could read them now and see how I’ve grown and changed positively since then. I threw all of my journals out because I was afraid that a roommate would find them and read them. And I wasn’t ready yet to share my story with anyone else.
After college, I took a job as a copywriter for a full-service marketing communications firm. I loved the job and the people at the company. And, after a couple of years of working remotely for them, they wanted me to come to the mothership and move from Portsmouth, NH to St. Louis, MO. At the time, I was dating someone who didn’t want to move, and I turned the offer down and became a full-time freelancer. I worked with individuals, organizations, and businesses in a variety of consultancy and contract work. I also served on a variety of arts and community development nonprofit boards and committees.
Today, I own my own company, Mapkey Creative, and I work as a copywriter, and I help build businesses.
Reading has always grounded me. It makes me feel less alone. The following three memoirs, read after graduating from college, I have found particularly healing: Blackout by Sarah Hepola, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
My passion for books has helped me navigate loss and stay focused on my own unfolding story.