I stepped inside and I could feel how much I wanted to be here with my mother, holding her hand and exploring this bookstore. The top half of the cabinets was lined with century-old leaflets, and the bottom half were covered with contemporary titles in Portuguese. The smell of the place was an amalgam of things almost ancient combined with processed paper; it confused the brain. It wasn’t so much the books I cared about, but the sweeping staircase that forked like in a palace and led up to the second floor’s high ceilings and stained glass. It was a place—as much museum as bookstore, maybe more—that I knew my mother would love. I wanted to see my mother’s face as she climbed the stairs, frustrated at their presence, but distracted by the carved wooden walls and sunlight streaming through the arched windows. I wanted to share the moment with her.
This bookstore, Lello, in Porto, Portugal is one of the best in the world. It was designed specifically to be a book store. It was not renovated to turn decorated walls into temporary homes for books, nor had it previously, in another life, housed a family or the maid’s quarters. The neo-gothic and art nouveau space was dedicated to books through and through. My mother and I would be able to understand this.
We would’ve started on the bottom floor of the cool building. She would’ve seen the spinning shelf of small books for children in the entrance, and then passed them to see the art books (“We are, after all, in Europe,” she would’ve reasoned). She would’ve understood almost nothing of the titles, but she would’ve noticed the century-old wooden shelves beneath them. Like me, she would’ve run her hand along the polished wood, the way she ran her hand along my forehead when I was younger. Her hand would linger here and there until she was satisfied, and then she’d move on.
Then she would’ve stopped in front of the staircase in the center of the first floor. She would’ve said of the well-worn steps, “That’s what years of people loving bookstores will do to stairs.” And then, she would’ve grasped the heal-of-the-hand shined banister and climbed her way up the right fork.
I would’ve watched her and admired her. I would see my barely 60-year old mother with bad knees pulling herself up the stairs one at a time. I would see her breathe and I would love the air that went in and out of her lungs. I would see her get to the top and look up, up, up. Her eyes would scan the woodwork of the ceiling, and she’d pause at the stained glass rectangle in the middle. She’d probably think about the stained glass cabinet fronts my dad had made, and maybe, too, the stained glass duck in flight that hangs in our living room window, announcing our family’s ability to create. I would love her for remembering our family in such a foreign place, and I would love her for being able to then forget it, appreciating the ancient in front of her.
As she stared up, I’d stare at her, thinking of her eyes and all that they’d read. I’d think of Sundays—almost every Sunday I’d experienced at home. They began for my mother earlier than they did for me—she rose around 8 and greeted the paper in the morning light. I’d wake and come downstairs to find her ensconced on the couch, turning pages with purpose, and taking in so much, almost like osmosis. She is a brilliant reader, and she reads everything that interests her (“There’s just so much to read and not enough time,” she’s said time and time again). Many Sundays I curled up next to her on the couch and we read together. I’d wiggle my feet under her, and she’d shift to accommodate the size-eight lumps beneath her. We would share a blanket or two, and we would take in, take in, take in. She finished articles and passed them to me, over tea and coffee, and I would put down the book I was reading at the time, or not, and read the article she’d handed me or return to my book. We would break the paper-silence by reading short passages to one another from what we were reading, and then return to our own. Afternoon would arrive too soon, and our quiet understanding of one another would change with the late-day light.
I loved these mornings. I grew up with a heart full of Sunday mornings. I would think of these beginning-endings of the week and miss them, hoping for another one soon. But we would be in a bookstore in Porto on a weekday, our lived-in living room so far way for the moment.
This weekday, we would walk single-file in the walkway quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping building. Our feet would barely touch the soft, worn wood beneath us. The plainclothes clerk with the I’m-better-than-this-stupid-job expression would watch us from across the way, bored and leaning against the banister that encased the upstairs.
She would see a mother and daughter, clearly American, clearly happy to be there together, walking around the old shop, just like everyone else. She would be annoyed that they weren’t seriously shopping for books—not that they would be able to read them anyway. She would see the daughter watch her mother. The daughter would smile behind her mother, probably in a way her mother had never seen before. The clerk would see that the daughter had so much to say to her mother, but that it was ok that she didn’t. The clerk would know that the bookshop’s years held the love she saw in the daughter, and her mother would feel it just the same as the sunshine on her skin. The clerk would never admit it, but she kind of missed her own mother.
We would see a child’s title whose cover we recognized, and I would pick it up. “Small world,” I’d say and hand the book to my mother. It would be a book that she’d read to me before bedtime, one that never really had a home on the bookshelf because it was always being read. It would be a book that we’d both remember her reading to me, and we would remember my footie pajamas under the covers and her raven-dark hair feathered across her forehead.
Handing it back to me after taking a long look, my mother would say with the same voice I remembered from when I was young, “No kidding. Do you know what the title is in Portuguese?”
I’d tell her no, and she wouldn’t be disappointed, instead happy for the memory of me being a child. She’d put the book back neatly, squeeze my arm and say, “You were so cute when you were little! Oh, what a doll you were.”
She would probably remember taking me to kindergarten or helping me learn to read or shopping for books for me. She would probably remember the awful and much-too-macabre books I read as a nine-year old about dying, cancer-riddled teenagers. She would remember that they were dark, but that I loved reading them, and so she bought them. To my mother, reading is important, and she mostly didn’t care what I was reading as long as I was simply doing it.
And so, she would or would not remember that I associate her so much with the gift of reading that I have carried with me everywhere. Maybe she’d know how thankful I was that there were always books in the house, even if there was only barely enough money. Maybe she’d know that she and my love for reading were always going to be inseparable. Maybe she’d know.
We’d finish our tour of the small walking space upstairs and decide to head back down the stairs. As we’d descend, she’d make a crack about us being debutantes at a ball or that we weren’t appropriately dressed for prom. Her comment would be so utterly Mom, and I would love it.
As she’d walk down in front of me, I’d remember the time in college I was nearly failing an archaeology course I hated. I struggled, and I wasn’t used to struggling. A week after complaining to my mother about my course, a box arrived in my dorm mailbox. In it, there was an archaeology coloring book (for fun), a synopsis of archaeology (to make sense of it all), and a few supplemental readings on the most important eras in the development of man (to keep me interested). I’m sure to her, it was nothing. To me, it was my loving mother, and I could feel my cheeks redden as I opened the package in my dormitory cafeteria—not from embarrassment, but from the swelling in my chest that had to go somewhere. My cheeks were not adept at hiding the love I felt for my mother.
We’d reach the bottom step and I’d think of the dozens of my favorite books that my mother had picked out. Birthdays, Christmases, and random Wednesdays were studded with books she’d chosen. I’d also think of the book I hated the most that she picked out, Gone With the Wind. Her only mistake was that I’d been too young when I read it. I always gave her such a hard time about it. I don’t know why. I don’t think I ever told her how much I loved all the other brilliant choices she’d made for me. My heart would ache a little on that last step.
As each step would bring us closer to exiting the shop, the more I would think about how lucky I was to be my mother’s daughter. I love to read, and that is a gift from her. I love to write, and that is, in part, a gift from her. I grew up with books in my hands, in my backpack, in stacks by my bed, and that was a gift from my mother. Who I am is, in many ways, a gift from my mother.
We would leave the shop without buying anything. We would turn left out of the shop onto Rua das Carmelitas towards the train station, or the church, or the river. We’d walk, the sunlight replacing the shadows of the bookstore. Maybe we’d talk about lunch or what to do next, but I’d be thinking about the beautiful woman walking next to me, happy to be holding her hand.