What I was reading when…


Books, like people, make such good companions. Getting us through the bad times and helping us celebrate the good times. Making us calmer or piquing our energy. It’s amazing what we remember about certain segments of our lives and what we were doing during certain events.

But what about the books we were reading during those significant moments?

Thinking back, I realize I associate different periods of my life, or certain occasions, with the books I was reading at the time.

In 1977, the summer I turned 15, I read La Familia Sanchez, the story of a boy coming of age in the Mexico City slums. (The author’s name long ago escaped my memory, and I can find no record of it online.) I planned to go on a trip to Mexico with my grandparents and wanted to immerse myself in Mexican culture. That book, and its story of innocence amid extreme poverty and longing, stays with me, echoing our American advantage.

As a teen bride, I had no money for college, so I vowed to educate myself by reading The Classics. In July 1982, when I was 20 — and scheduled to have all four wisdom teeth extracted — I read about Quasimodo finding safety in the tower in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He kept my heart from thumping out of my chest as I waited for my morphine drip in the oral surgeon’s chair.

When my kids were growing up, one of our favorite stories was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It was comforting to know we weren’t alone when things went wrong — there were plenty of people who’d had really bad days, too. Alexander survived his, and so would we. Decades later, when one of my kids has a terrible day, we bring up Alexander, and their burden seems a little lighter.

In November 2003, I sat in the hallway in the bowels of the emergency room, reading Skipping Christmas by John Grisham (later made into the movie “Christmas with the Kranks” starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis). I struggled to focus, hoping the words tumbling around in my brain might drown out my teen daughter’s screams from the treatment room. They’d bound her to the bed with restraints after she threatened to hurt herself.

I wondered what people thought of me reading while my daughter had a mental meltdown. But a book was the only thing that kept my panic and hysteria from boiling over and spilling out.  

In 2012, I read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty for the first time, even though I’d already seen the movie (as most 70s teenagers had). My Navy-sailor son loved horror stories, so we read it simultaneously — me at home in Texas, and him on a destroyer patrolling for pirates off the eastern coast of Africa.

That book and other horror stories — like Stephen King’s The Shining — connected us even though we were thousands of miles apart. Our synchronous reading and back-and-forth email commentary linked him to normalcy and a bit of home.

My understanding of my family dynamics changed in May 2019 while I read Diane Pomerantz’s memoir, Lost in the Reflecting Pool. In it, Pomerantz, a psychotherapist, chronicled life with her psychiatrist husband, who she came to realize was a sociopath.

As I read her words, some experiences she described were eerily similar to those my own family endured at the hands of my psychiatrist father, now deceased. He’d always been manipulative, critical, and intimidating, but I came to the shocking realization that he was also an emotional abuser throughout my childhood and beyond.

It had taken me almost 57 years and Pomerantz’s book to come to that understanding. Sometimes, reading about someone else’s journey makes you look more closely at your own.

During our current life with covid-19, I read Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song, about a rabies-like virus infecting Massachusetts. (The world knew nothing of the coronavirus when Tremblay wrote the book.) Paradoxically, the story made me feel better about the current health crisis affecting the globe. At least our virus isn’t as virulent as the one in the book (for which there is only a one-hour window to prevent certain death).

Which books have punctuated poignant events in your life?

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: Teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues and loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets but HATES the word normal. Find her on Twitter at @klromo and Instagram at @k.l.romo.

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