Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bijaboji -- A Spectacular Rowed Trip

I won't say you can't possibly understand how I felt when my mother arrived for a three-day stay here without a book to read. But you, of course, weren't there each afternoon all those decades ago when she insisted on our daily nap -- so that throughout twenty years with pre-schoolers keeping her company, she worked her way through hundreds and hundreds of books lugged home on several-times-weekly visits to the library. Many differences might separate us, but her love of reading was always a big link -- and a beacon as well.

That she loved reading so avidly, that we were introduced to the library from our earliest days as a place of delights and wonders, that reading could take us away from constant chores like laundry and dishwashing, could distract us from the social and academic rigors of the classroom -- all this made me a stack-of-books-a-week addict just like mom! And as strict as she was about what we wore, where we went, what we listened to on the radio and watched on the television, our reading was never, ever censored. Indeed, she agreed with the children's librarian that I would benefit from an adult card and free access to the entire library even before I hit my teens.
My dad would read the occasional mystery and, of course, the daily paper, but my mom was the one who led us into the bookworld, and every one of my siblings still inhabits that happy place regularly.

But mom's passport is in danger of expiring, although she keeps trying to make forays across the border. With the Mild Cognitive Impairment she's experienced over the last few years, she finds it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the novels she used to burn her way through. She told me, ruefully, that she still brings books home regularly but often returns them unfinished. I tried to reassure her by joking that there wouldn't be a test, but really, it's not funny at all, is it? I can't imagine not being able to enjoy reading -- and being conscious of that inability, still holding onto the desire for the experience--never mind the pleasures of the reading content--seems an especially cruel accompaniment to old age.

I've witnessed this gradually falling away from reading that my mother's been going through, but I never quite grasped its enormity until she sat next to us on the ferry, her travel bag on the floor beside her chair, her purse on the seat beside her, and failed to produce the reading material necessary to get her through the 95-minute sailing. Pater and I, of course, each had chunky books we were keen to sink into, although we divvied up the daily paper as an appetizer. But Mom just sat there, claiming she was content with the view. She did thumb through the paper idly as we finished with the various sections, but there was no evidence of any sustained interest.

Arrived at our house, I spread out some magazines which, with their pictures, caught her eye and entertained her for a while. Then I had the happy inspiration to pull out a pile of best-loved children's picture books that had survived our four and now waited our granddaughter -- and because these were so well-written and beautifully illustrated, she enjoyed paging through them.

But my real inspiration was a book I'd just finished, a travel-adventure narrative written in very readable, lively, straightforward prose. Perhaps because she didn't have to keep track of a complex plot with multiple characters, perhaps because she could relate so well to the time and the place, Mom finally settled on the couch for hours and hours, happily relaxing into another existence as she had so often in the past. The book was Bijaboji: North to Alaska by Oar, a fabulous "rowed-trip" narrative written by Betty Lowman Carey, edited by her husband Neil G. Carey, in their 80s about Betty's solo rowing trip in a dugout canoe from Anacortes, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska in the summer of 1937. Unbelievable!

In her early 20s at the time, with college behind her, but future graduate studies and work as a journalist still ahead, young Betty Lowman prepared for her trip by ensuring she could swim ten miles in the cold waters near Anacortes, keen to show her father he should let her embark on her adventure. No wonder he withheld consent. Looking at the distance she covered on a map conveys no sense of the dangers she faced in storms, current-and-tide-churned waters, possible miscreants, never mind that she set out with supplies we would now consider inadequate for a weekend camping trip. Her delightful confidence and determination along with her journalist's powers of observation -- and memory, after her notes were destroyed through a nautical mishap -- make this a page-turner that inspires and uplifts. No wonder mom loved it!

Besides the tale of the 1937 adventure, I was also fascinated to see what Betty got up to in the years between then and the time of writing the book, in the early 2000s. And although those 60 years are compressed into a few pages, they were marked by an impressive career and interesting travels, across the US as a journalist and speaker, then crewing a schooner for an owner who couldn't find a male crew during wartime. Shipwrecked on that boat, she walked and hitchhiked 125 miles to Halifax (all this tossed off in a breezy paragraph!). She and her husband and son later moved to the then-even-more-remote Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii), although not until Betty, at 49, and her beloved dugout canoe, Bijaboji, had completed the return trip from Ketchikan to Anacortes.

I don't know how many books will be able to keep my mother's attention as her memory and her cognitive abilities move further into old age. But I'm so glad that I thought to share this one with her, and that she was once again transported through print. I'm not sure how widely distributed Bijaboji is (published by Harbour here in BC), but if you can get a copy, I suspect you'll enjoy it as well.


  1. I'm so happy to hear that you found something that your mother enjoyed reading! My family had a similar relationship with books - although it was terribly expensive to buy them when I was growing up in Singapore, my mother used to take us to the library, and I still remember it incredibly clearly. It was such a treat! My daughter is such a bookworm that I had to reintroduce her to the public library or go broke keeping up with her - and she is delighted by it.

  2. Tiffany, it's hard to imagine how I would have lived without the library, growing up. Funny that I have so fallen away from it over the past few decades -- although I certainly took my own kids there lots, we've moved more and more, as we were increasingly able to afford it, to buying our own books. And honestly, another factor is probably that I hate having to organize enough to get the books back on time;-)

  3. Oh my I read every book in the small town we lived in when I was growing up, and my parents also indulged us by books as often as possible. I was thrilled when, at 14 I was allowed to check books out of the local university library.

    The book sounds fascinating and I too am happy that you found some engaging reading for your mom. I am going through that same thing with my DH, who read for years but is having much trouble focusing and remembering what he has read, and has gradually gone from books to magazines and the paper to now, he skims the paper, reading some articles, but it might be an afternoon before he gets through one article. He tries to read the New Yorker but he looses track of where he is and what he is reading so often, I think he is much more content to look at the cartoons and the ads.

  4. Reading is an integral part of my personality, my identity, as I suspect it is for you, Mardel. That your G. and my mom and others like them continue to try to read even after the ability to concentrate and to remember has gone is a testament to its significance in their/our lives. Before/beyond the content we are reading and the way that makes us think and feel and learn, there is the physicality of it that extends beyond the book's material qualities to the postures our body assumes while reading, the movement of our eyes, whatever neurological functions are taking place in the decoding. . . truly, it makes me a bit desperate to think I might follow my mom in that direction . . . All the more reason, I guess, to tackle those long booklists now while we can!