My mom, Elizabeth Teresa van Eekhout, died last week after a series of illnesses. I still have to write a proper obituary, making sure I get dates and place names right — when was she in Semarang and when was she in Sumatra, and what years did she live in Holland after the Japanese occupation and the Indonesian revolution, and did she arrive in the United States in 1959 or 1960? — but for now, I don’t want to write about her biographical details. I just want to get down a few words about who she was to me.
As Lisa and I were going through my parents’ house, we found an old lock box that contained, among other things, order forms for a book club, and among the titles my mom ordered were Green Eggs and Ham, Go Dog Go, and Hop on Pop. I remember those books, and the dinosaur books, and the Babar books and the Curious George books. They were my first obsessions. I remember them, and I remember the walks to the Venice library, only two blocks away, but still an adventurous journey because my mom chose a route that took us through alleys overgrown with ivy and thorn trees and charming, unkempt, slightly scary back yards. She gave me books, and she gave me reading, and I am a writer because I had those things, and she gave them to me with hope and love.
I remember so many trips sitting in a basket on the back of her Schwinn three-speed, Mom pedaling away to take me to kindergarten, or to feed the ducks along the canals. I remember so many bus rides (Mom never learned to drive) to places that aren’t there any more.
My mom drew with colored markers on my brown bag lunches. I remember parrots and killer whales. I don’t know if she ever drew anywhere else.
The longest job she held was at the Linwood E. Howe Elementary library, which was also my school library. She was careful not to call herself a librarian. Her actual job title was media clerk. But she curated a collection of books she thought kids would like, and she maintained a safe, book-centered space, and she encouraged kids to read and protected their right to read the books they wanted. A parent once objected to the presence of Harry Potter on my mom’s library shelves. Mom was stubborn. So stubborn. Her stubbornness wasn’t always good, but this time, it was great. Harry Potter never left those shelves.
Toward the end, she lost her ability to speak, and there were times when whatever she was thinking or feeling couldn’t reach me, and I could no longer reach her. But I was able to show her my new book, and she held it in her hands, and she smiled in a way I’d seen thousands of times, and I knew holding my book made her happy and proud. Which made me feel good, of course. Her last gift to me.
How do you memorialize a person you’ve known your entire life, who loved you that entire time in a way nobody else really can, because nobody else is your mom? I don’t know. You just keep on loving her, I guess. You be grateful and you love her for the rest of your life.