Recently I read Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman, which is about two female journalists who ended up racing each other around the world in 1889. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland left on their solo trips from New York, heading in opposite directions, Bly aiming to beat the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg and Bisland aiming to beat Bly, who didn’t even know there was a race. Bly left in the morning, and Bisland’s editor called her and had her on a train that evening, convinced that by going west instead of east, she could make the trip faster. What follows is a fascinating look at history and the ever-shrinking world, through the eyes of two American women who couldn’t have been more different. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, but that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing because the copy of the book I read was my mother’s. I gave it to her for Mother’s Day in 2014 and I don’t even know if she read it before she died last October.
I always planned to borrow the book when she was done because I really wanted to read it. With her love of history and badass ladies, I knew it was something she’d enjoy immensely. In reading through it, so often something would strike me and the strangeness of the situation would just hit me. This book was Mom’s. Did she read it? She would’ve liked this part. I wonder if she read it. Did she know about this? No idea. Honestly, I don’t think she ever did read it, and that part would make me sad periodically, too. Such a small thing, reading a book. One of many small things she won’t ever do again.
We clashed fairly often, Mama and I. Both a bit headstrong and neither terribly afraid of making the other mad with differing opinions, there were raised voices, tears and even the good old fashioned silent treatment. She was a difficult person a lot of the time, spending too much of her life in pain from one chronic illness or another. The list was too long to remember. I know she was always disappointed that I turned out to be more like my father than her in looks and personality. Outside with the critters and dirt was way more fun than sewing or cooking. However, I got a smart mouth from her and a general love of books and learning. She fostered those from when I was a baby, and for that, I’ll be eternally grateful. We traded books for as long as I can remember, from silly crap like VC Andrews to headier things like the Brontës. She’d give me Oliver Twist and I’d try desperately to make her read Carrie (no luck there, she did not like horror at all.) Books were an easy go-to gift for both of us, a common language for two very different people.
Now, there are several books on my shelf that once were on hers. My dad is not a big reader, so after she died, books were one of the things to be sorted through and taken away. After figuring out which ones he didn’t want, I made boxes for the church, some for the used book store, and a box for me. Most of them are older books I’ve read at one time or another, but didn’t have copies of. But there are one or two more new ones, I think. The other book I gave her that Mother’s Day, Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou, will probably sit untouched for a while. I do know she read that and loved it.
Maybe it’s that Eighty Days was the first one of hers I’ve picked up, or maybe it was the subject matter (probably both), but I just kept thinking of her randomly as I read. Nellie Bly, with her brashness, perpetual insistence that everything was better in America and in a few more less-flattering ways reminded me of Mom. The way the author included information about the whole of the world at that time, from the building of the railroad to a brief introduction to Joseph Pulitzer, would have pleased her as it did me. The sense of adventure and exploration captured in the book and the idea of traveling to all those places would have captured her imagination and made her wish she could have done it. She always wanted to travel and was never really able, partly because we couldn’t afford it and later she was just physically unable to do much. She would’ve liked reading about the world back then and checking out the photos included. She would’ve enjoyed getting to know those two strong women and comparing their perspectives on their travels around the globe. She really would have loved the book, I was right about that. I hope she read it. Even if she didn’t, I’ll always connect it with her, and there’s something nice in that.