On a trip home to Western Pennsylvania last week, seven of us piled into my sister’s SUV and spent the day visiting the sites of my mother’s childhood. Serendipitously, the tiny house she grew up in was being renovated, so it was empty. At the worker’s invitation, we walked through it, the first time we had been inside since my grandfather died in 1967. Among my immigrant relations, Mum and her family were the lucky ones, with a home of their own and an educated (albeit alcoholic) father with a steady job. I took a picture of her looking out the window of the bedroom where she and seven of her siblings all slept, and I could visualize them there, hiding under the bed when Grandpa came home, or running outside to climb the fruit trees that used to blossom in their back yard. Through that window, I know she still saw those trees.
Across the street is the Jewish cemetery that is the setting for one of our favorite family ghost stories, and I filled in the details as I walked through it with my eight-year-old niece, Gracie, who also knows every word. Later that day, when we visited the graveyard where my maternal grandmother, Anna Cecilia Daley Kurtz, is buried, my mom recalled where another relative’s grave was by remembering how the pallbearers slipped on the icy hill as they struggled with the coffin. There was the hill, and there the tombstone. And a grayscale image of a somberly dressed funeral party under a steely Pittsburgh sky, my young and lovely mom vivid among them, now has a place in my imagination.
What is memory for my mom has become story for me and my sisters. And her mother’s stories are now our children’s stories. In a family of readers, these stories live richly among us. When we get together, usually once a year, we retell our favorites, adding detail, repeating phrases, playing with words—the time Danny kicked his first-grade teacher, the day I led a party of toddlers across a busy street to steal some gorgeous plastic flamingos, the time grandma gave Mitchell a banana. None of us actually remember those days like Mum does, but we can tell the stories.
There is a lot of talk these days about reading inspiring empathy. Studies in neuroscience gauge the effect of reading on the brain, and, in light of new information, literary critics constantly reconsider what reading does for us. (And then another article appears on the Internet about why we should study the humanities.)
Empathy. It requires an imaginative leap, and, like every leap, it becomes easier the more we repeat it. Like the athletes we’ve been watching these past two weeks, readers, too, learn to leap by repeating the effort with every novel, every poem, every biography that has us imagining our way into someone else’s life. Envisioning stories into reality is a skill of Olympic proportions.
Last summer, popular Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany wrote in the By Heart series in the Atlantic about reading Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (8.18.15):
There is a scene in the novel where one criminal, a young man, is dying. As he dies, another criminal stands watch before his bed, and he begins to cry. We must not forget that these are people who committed terrible crimes. The narrator describes how a soldier was looking at him because he was crying for another prisoner. And the prisoner says:
“He, also, had a mother.”
“Also” is the important word in the sentence. . . . To me, the role of literature is in this “also.”
I, also, have a mother. And her stories live and breathe in me; they smell like fresh plums; they sound like glass milk bottles rattling by the front door; they feel like fear and loss and love. I know this through experience—and with the help of the scientists and literary theorists and novelists.
The practices of reading hone my imagination and color my memories; and they find their best expression in luminous moments of empathy like those that visited me last week in Pennsylvania.