Holding On to That Shared Life

I am in an airplane, praying. No, it's not turbulence, it's thankfulness. My husband and I are jetting away to take a cruise to Alaska and I think of my 3 children down below as profound North American continent markers -- one in Boston, one in Chicago, one in Palos Verdes, CA. Ah -- so different, yet all working with the same DNA. Friends -- and sometimes loving critics -- and it's all mine and my husband's fault.

So the prayer is -- one of thanksgiving and wonder. Because here we are still adventuring and they are living their own pathways and adventures. Like our plane ride with fellow passengers, all 3 started the journey at the same point -- ate the same foods, heard the same loving words and lullabies, enjoyed the same childhood books and music, were hugged and tickled encouraged and guided by the same grandparents and other family members. But along the way, doors open or close to these common elements as each child picks and chooses who they will be, by choosing what they like, dislike, what is more meaningful or as #2 says "what blows your hair back." It's called becoming and deciding whether it's vegan, green, rocker, poet, spiritual, agnostic, politically involved or disenfranchised, wealthy, getting by, MA, BA and beyond.

But despite the differences that arise as children grow and change and become individuals, there are always commonalities that bind a family together. It's our history, our memories, it's that shared life.

And it's valuable to realize that some of the shared life came from the generations above, from both one's mother and father. It's a blend of inheritance that becomes richer and richer as ideas and values, habits and interests are passed down.

In my growing-up family, my mother and then my older brother influenced my love of reading. Being the oldest he asked first -- and so he had bookshelves in his room that held many volumes. He also loved classical music, another gift from my mother and her family. Thus he haunted a local record store, listened to different recordings of the classics and over the years became a purchaser of thousands of records. And though he once dreamed of being an orchestra conductor, his life work has been professor of English literature. And he's incredible in this work, being named teacher of the year at Georgetown University.

It fell to my younger brother to become proficient at an instrument, the guitar (though we all had a go at piano lessons) and to make the music business his career. Various sports were his other loves and he caddied during high school and was awarded a Chick Evans scholarship that helped him earn his college degree.

My mother encouraged all of us to read, to always have a book that you couldn't wait to get back to. This again is that shared life, something that I passed on to my three children and they are passing on to theirs. I know that my early love of reading helped "build" my life and thus I am forever grateful to my mother -- she knew what she was doing. Reading led me to writing and majoring in English and teaching. Reading medical literature later on led me to become a nurse.

Looking back at my childhood, I have fond memories of curling up with a book that took me farther than an airplane or a cruise ship. Reading made life-dreams possible and helped me to wonder about things beyond the doors and windows of my home.

What books did you read in your shared life with family? Here are a few of mine:

1. The Maida Books. My mother owned the series. Written by Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin, the books first appeared in 1910 with Maida's Little Shop. The Maida books reflected Irwin's belief in feminism and social change. Maida's wealthy father provides Maida and her friends with a series of alternative environments for living and learning. My older daughter now cares for these volumes, the covers fragile and old.

2. Anne of Green Gables. This series is the favorite of my other daughter who owns all the books and fulfilled a lifetime dream when she and her family visited Prince Edward Island. Written by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, the first title appeared in 1908. It's the story of Anne Shirley, a young orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who have a farm on PEI and who had intended to adopt a boy to help them. The novel recounts how Anne steals the hearts of the Cuthberts and everyone else in the small town.

3. Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys. Louisa May Alcott wasn't sure she wanted to write a book for young girls, but utilizing shared experiences with her real life sisters, she created four of the most endearing characters ever created -- Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. This novel was published in 1868 and follows the lives of the four sisters as they navigated growing up during the American Civil War. Alcott went on to write Little Men and Jo's Boys after the success of the first book. My mother loved the books and named me after the Beth character.

4. The Boxcar Children Series. Written by Gertrude Chandler Warren, the books are about Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, four orphaned brothers and sisters who mysteriously appear in a small town on a warm summer night. No one knows who they are or where they came from. Frightened to live with a grandfather they have never met, the children make a home for themselves in an old abandoned red boxcar they discover in the woods. From there readers discover the strength and creativity of these children to live on their own in their forest home.

Because life is truly a journey, remembering our shared life helps us decide where we want to go and how we want to get there. And a footnote about Little Women: One of the greatest New Yorker cartoons was drawn by Perry Barlow: It shows a little girl reading and at the same time crying. The father has just come in the door and the mother says to him: "Sh-h-h. Beth is dying."