Lisa McElroy On Books and Thankfulness

Popehat is pleased to welcome a guest post from Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.

Several years ago, my father forwarded me an email he thought seemed suspicious. “Do you think this is a scam?” he asked. The email was from an elderly woman in Miami Beach, Florida, who had retired from teaching and was moving into an assisted living situation. She was clearing out her belongings, and she had come across some books she’d almost forgotten.

Fifty years before, this teacher had taken over her classroom from a young woman who was leaving to be married. On her first day, she had looked in the room’s supply closet, where she found a pile of books, most of them inscribed from a father to his daughter. Thinking they seemed special and that the departed teacher might want them someday, she took them home.

As these things go, the books lay forgotten, and by the time she found the young bride, it was through her obituary. My grandmother had died at the age of 87, leaving her son and several grandchildren. The retired teacher, a new internet aficionado, sent my father an email. “Would you like these books?” she asked. And my father, having lived 65 or so years himself in a world that had become more and more suspect and unreliable and scary, was worried that he was being taken for a ride.

As we head into the holiday season, we’re often asked what we’re grateful for, what would be a true gift. As my father recognized when he worried about scammers, the world, while more advanced, is also scarier and sadder in many ways than it was back when my grandmother and her successor were teaching school. I’ve been searching the internet, just as the retired teacher did, but for something different. As I sit around the Thanksgiving table next week with my parents (now in their 70s) and my husband and my teen daughters, I know I’m going to need to smile and tell them all just what makes me feel thankful. But in a year that has been about anything but peace, I’ve been looking for something concrete to hang my “thankful” hat on.

And so I began thinking about my grandmother, and books, and that retired teacher in Miami Beach.
My grandmother was a woman of style, a dedicated learner, and a lifelong reader (and crossword puzzle cheater, but don’t get me started on that). My most vivid childhood memories of her are of sitting in her living room, sometimes on the parquet floor, sometimes on the piano bench, sometimes on her brocade couch, reading some new book we’d checked out from the library. Although I lived a six-hour drive from my grandmother, she knew the librarians at her local branch well enough to talk her way into getting a borrower’s card for me; after an ice cream sundae or a trip to see the giant dolls at the department store, we’d always end up back at the same circulation desk in the same brick building, watching the librarian stamp in ink the due date for some new adventure bound up as a book.

The best part about reading with my grandmother was reading together. I don’t mean that she read aloud to me – from the age of four or so, I was determined to read on my own (I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was about eight, but that reading thing was way more necessary in my book). But we’d read together, there in her living room, my grandmother with her new mystery thriller, me with my children’s classic on which she insisted. And looking back, what I’m most grateful for in my relationship with my grandmother was that true gift she gave me: a love of books.

There was one book in particular that we both loved: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although Francie, the protagonist, lived an underprivileged Brooklyn life, and I lived in a well-to-do Texas town, there was just something about Francie that resonated for me. I wanted to be gritty, like she was, determined to do something with my life. I wanted her powers of observation, to notice the smells of baking bread and the splashes of puddles on the sidewalk. And more than anything, I wanted Francie to be understood for her love of books, even in a family that wasn’t very readerly, the way I wanted to be understood and my passion nurtured – as it was by my grandmother.

Thirty-five years later, one night, when my husband was away for work, I found myself lying in my king-sized bed, reading a book. There’s nothing remarkable about that – my children know that, if they can’t find mom, check the bedroom and see if she’s absorbed in her reading so she can’t hear you call out. But what was special about this winter evening was that my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, were lying next to me, each with her own book. We were mostly quiet, absorbed in our own stories, but every so often, one of us would say, “Listen to this!” and we’d read out a description or a joke or a pithy line. And then we’d quiet again. Eventually, they fell asleep, there in the big bed, their books in hand.

These days, as teenagers, my girls have lots of interests, and I can’t remember the last time we all piled into the big bed and read books together. My older daughter now looks at the stars and imagines flying among them, but my younger daughter still looks down, at books in her lap, at the pages she turns. She reads because she cares about words, loves how they come together into sentences and paragraphs and entire chapters of plot and character and nuance. Last week, she asked me for a suggestion for a book to read. I thought of my grandmother, and I said, “How about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?”

A few days later, a package arrived from a used book seller. My daughter disappeared into her room, tattered book in hand. For the next few days, she didn’t talk much. She’d get her backpack ready for school or look up if I told her it was time for dinner, but, mostly, she kept her eyes focused down, on paperback pages that told a story of a poor girl in Brooklyn in the 1910s and 20s.
Yesterday, she came downstairs. “I finished it!” she said. I smiled. “Yeah?” I answered. “It has always been one of my favorites.” “Well,” she said, “It’s my absolute favorite. Every sentence is a delicious treat.” A delicious treat. Exactly. A treat that we can devour again and again, from different perspectives and at different times in life, with different people who are important in our lives. Those varied possibilities are so absolutely delicious.

And so I found it, my list of things to be grateful for, the gift I need above all. I am grateful for my grandmother, who took me to the library every visit; I am grateful for my daughter, whose enthusiasm about books fills every room; I am grateful to the retired teacher in Miami Beach, who somehow knew that my grandmother and her family would treasure those books.

And I am grateful for books. During this difficult year, they’ve given me a place to escape. They’ve given me a place to belong. And they’ve helped me see that, whether in the dirty streets of 1920s Brooklyn or the suburbs of 2015 Philadelphia, a tree will always grow.

Last 5 posts by Popehat


  1. Richard says

    I had to read and re-read this multiple times, for two reasons:

    First, because it is a delightful read, and I agree with all of it. Books are a gift to the world, and I hope someday to write one worthy for other people to read.

    "A treat that we can devour again and again, from different perspectives and at different times in life, with different people who are important in our lives. Those varied possibilities are so absolutely delicious." – This is exactly how I feel about books.

    Second, because it is a "guest post" by Ken on Popehat and I wanted to be absolutely certain that it wasn't satire.

  2. foo says

    The story is lovely, but I thought the first three paragraphs especially were very well written – they effortlessly and succinctly explained the relationships between the people involved, all the while advancing the story and transitioning from the past into the present day, without having to resort to tortured parentheticals explaining who's who.

  3. ZK says

    Second, because it is a "guest post" by Ken on Popehat and I wanted to be absolutely certain that it wasn't satire.

    I read it twice, too, because not only is it a "guest post", but it's a "guest post" that opens with a link. I'm really not sure what I'm supposed to think, and am looking for some meta-level point.

    I also really like books, and the magic they bring to my family.

  4. Yourself says

    Wait am I missing something? Why are people putting ""guest post"" in quotes? Does Ken spend his weekends as Philadelphia author and Drexel University professor Lisa McElroy?

  5. Richard says

    Wait am I missing something? Why are people putting ""guest post"" in quotes? Does Ken spend his weekends as Philadelphia author and Drexel University professor Lisa McElroy?


    Take a look at the two entries labelled "Guest Post" in the "Last 5 posts by Popehat" between the article and the comments, and then come back.
    Edit: Links, for the lazy:

  6. En Passant says

    I recall A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from my mipspent youth. I also recall decades of my adulthood contending with the invasive nuisance that is the same tree: Ailanthus altissima, known colloquially as "The Tree of Heaven".

    A. altissima is an apt species name insofar as it suggests the tree grows quite tall.

    But A. altissima branches become brittle and break away suddenly, causing consternation, property damage, or even injury to someone unfortunate enough to be standing beneath one in such events.

    So, "The Tree of Heaven" is an apt moniker in its denotation that the tree grows tall, thereby reaching to "the heavens". But, those afflicted by A. altissima's persistently invasive growth tendencies often think of it as "The Tree from Hell".

    I am thankful that through years of persistent effort I have been able to eliminate its presence from my property.

    That said, Prof. McElroy's post today is a gem. I thank the proprietors of Popehat, and Prof. McElroy for publishing it.

  7. Jacob H says

    When I was growing up, my dad had a framed poem about books that, as I got older, really started to choke me up – it still does.

    "The World of Books" – Clarence Day, jr

    The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out, and after an era new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men's hearts of the heart of men centuries dead

  8. Richard Smart says

    Okay, I have to ask… how do you cheat at crossword puzzles?

    (I'm ruling out cranking up a supercomputer here…)

  9. Jon H says

    As a Drexel grad (1994, Information Systems), this is nice. Used to be I only encountered Drexel in the context of weirdness or crime . Like the frat brothers who used their co-op position at an off-track betting company to game the system and make a pile of money. (Or something along those lines.)

    Oh wait. This does have a bit of that – not in a criminal sense though – but I shan't mention it. Sigh.

  10. max says

    re: cheating on crossword puzzles

    meta-gaming. back in the mid-90s? there was a crossword puzzle writer who lost a bet or something and every puzzle for about a year contained the word "alar", so any time you saw his name you could just look for a clue about wings or apples and know that the 4 letter answer was going to be 'alar'. Crossword puzzle writers have goto words or other quirks, albeit rarely used in every puzzle, and one can use the name of the writer to cheat.

    also sometimes the solution printed on the same day as the puzzle and one can look up the solution to fill in difficult clues.

  11. Luke says

    Thank you Lisa. I currently have two little girls on the way and some of the imagery you created about sharing reading with your family brought a happy tear to my eye. I am very thankful to have been brought up in a home where reading was strongly encouraged, and I can't wait to start reading to my daughters.

    Popehat – you don't do guest posts often but damn, when you do they are excellent! Even though they may not warn us properly to the pony menace…

  12. Fasolt says

    Thank you for that, Professor McElroy. The love of readingl truly is a great gift to give to your children. My sister and I were encouraged to be readers as children, and remain voracious readers to this day.

  13. es says

    Both my kids have inherited our deep love of reading. Even my 11 year son old can knock off a book every other week or so.

    His current English teacher is having the students keep a journal and note thoughts as they read. My son absolutely loathes writing. It is slowly but surely turning the love of unfettered reading into a deeply hated chore.

    Not sure what to do about it, since the notes are graded… :-(

  14. Rich Rostrom says

    I'm slightly confused by the chronology here.

    "Fifty years earlier… this teacher … found a pile of books…" left by "a young woman who was leaving to be married"…. "she found the young bride… through her obituary. My grandmother had died at the age of 87…"

    87 – 50 = 37, which is not a "young bride", even today, much less around 1960. Perhaps "young" is merely rhetorical, though.

  15. Lisa McElroy says

    Thanks to all of you for reading my essay.

    I never read Internet comments on my writing; as I'm sure you all know, they can be pretty terrifying. So when my husband said, "You really ought to read these," I proceeded with caution.

    What an incredible, lovely surprise to find thoughtful readers and commenters! I am so grateful (choice of words intended) and so glad I decided to share my grandmother and our love of books with you all.

    To answer a few questions:

    Richard, I am really me.

    Richard Smart, my grandmother had this reverse dictionary thing in which you could look up clues and get the answer. I'm not sure how it worked.

    John, yes, my dad did get the books, and my daughter and I have a few of them. Almost all of them were inscribed from my great-grandfather to my grandmother.

    Rich, good catch. This all happened in the early 40s, so my timeline was off. My grandmother died in 2003. My dad got the email circa 2008.

    Again, thank you so much for reading.


  16. Angus says

    Lisa, Thanks for the reply. I really wanted to know what happened with your dad and the books.