My teenage obsession with ‘How Things Work’

I felt, vaguely, that this book was like me. Not shiny. Not appealing. I had a secret life. This book had a special knowing and I had to have it. But my mother wouldn’t hear of it

Gulf News

My mother, a paranoid schizophrenic, was kind, shy and very strange, darting from our house to the car, carrying her purse in a cardboard box, always. Any activity that required interacting with fellow humans was, for her, anathema. As an adolescent I knew one thing for certain: I didn’t want to turn out like my mother.

When I was in junior high, desperate to fit in, I occasionally managed to convince her that we needed to go to the Colonial Plaza Mall, in downtown Orlando, Florida. She despised shopping, and while I tried on outfit after outfit, she said no, no, no. Too tight, too expensive. We went to Belks, Jordan Marsh and Sears, and I saw other girls with their mothers, smiling, carrying shopping bags, while we skulked along the margins of sale racks, not talking.

Always, we failed to make a single purchase for the wardrobe I dreamt of — Jordache jeans, Candie’s stiletto slides, a top with metallic anything.

These were hard days. It was just me and my mom. I had not one friend. Neither did she. My mother was always frantically worried, dogged by voices and visions. I was constantly confused, awkward, overwhelmed. I had no idea what was wrong — everything. Often, my mother talked of ending it all.

On one of these dismal shopping excursions, on our way to the mall’s exit, I noticed Waldenbooks. I was 13 and I’d never been inside Waldenbooks. Five minutes, I begged. Please. She said there was no money for books. The store was brightly lit, glowing. Just to look, I said. But as we stepped onto the plush green carpeting, I regretted it. I stood at a table stacked with cookbooks, books of photographs of houses, fat best sellers with one-word titles. I palmed one. I’d never held an unread book before; my experience was limited to the Fort Gatlin branch library. I didn’t like the brand-new books; they smelled plastic and seemed cheaply made. My mother stood with her arms crossed. Five minutes, she said.

I made my way to the back of the store and sat down on the floor. Let the woman with her purse in the cardboard box never find me. Let someone else find me. On the bottom shelf I saw a set of grey books. I pulled out the first volume. It was heavy, as a book should be. There was no plasticky jacket, no author photo, no blurbs. Instead there was a simple line drawing of a machine on the cover, and the words ‘How Things Work’ on the spine.

I felt, vaguely, that this book was like me. Not shiny. Not appealing. I had a secret life. This book had a special knowing.

Each table of contents was a list: parachute, vacuum cleaner, block and tackle, steam locomotive. The pages were dense with text, punctuated with fine line drawings, exploded views. I had to have it.

I knew she would say no. But I pressed her, holding the four volumes: I had money in a savings account from babysitting. It was my money. I hated to ask my mother for anything. We did not really have birthdays. We no longer had Christmas. We lived in a house where the windows were nailed shut, and the radio and telephone were forbidden. It was as far from civilisation as one could get, and still live in a suburb, and not attract attention.

Now I begged. I had to have these books. I had never felt this way about a book, haven’t since. This was an educational product, I argued. You are so lucky to have a daughter who wants books like this and not stupid things. Mom. It’s ‘How Things Work’.

Absolutely not.

It didn’t occur to me that ‘How Things Work’ held the promise of an elixir: From these pages, I’d understand nuclear power, refrigeration and jet engines and, in comprehending the machinery of life, I’d finally have some bearings in the world. I could begin to resolve the confusion that plagued me and my mother.

On the rare occasions I got to the mall, I always checked on my books — the lone set gathering dust on the bottom shelf. I read the entries fast: ballpoint pen, computer, atomic clock. There wasn’t enough time. I hid them behind other books to thwart potential buyers.

I’ve rarely desired anything, before or since, as much as the four-volume set of ‘How Things Work’. My mother’s refusal to get them for me seemed senseless and cruel; it still seems senseless and cruel.

Into high school, I was still begging for those books, and then I went away to college not to learn how things worked but to get away from how things didn’t work.

One day I was in my 20s, visiting my mother with my new boyfriend. She said she had a present for me. I cringed: Her presents were often odd. Mattress pads, used Baggies, support pantyhose. I didn’t want my new boyfriend to see. Neither did she: She asked him to wait in the car.

Around the side of the house, she handed me what was clearly a book, an oversized tome, wrapped in pretty birthday balloons wrapping paper. “You don’t have to open it now. But I hope you will. I’m so excited.” I just wanted to get out of there. We managed an awkward embrace. She exuded hopefulness and I felt embarrassed, ashamed of my mother. I stuffed the present in the back of my car, and months later opened it.

‘The Way Things Work: From Levers to Lasers, Cars to Computers, a Visual Guide to the World of Machines’. The title was printed on a jaunty, shiny jacket, and the letters were made out of dancing zippers, gears, a crane in the shape of a T. It was a cartoon of how things worked, a gift book for a sixth-grade boy.

This was the Disney version of my dream. And yet she’d remembered, and a decade later, for no reason at all, she gave me what she could.

I found the original books, recently, online. They are smaller and thinner than I remember. I placed them in a virtual cart, but I haven’t yet made the purchase. My mother is dead. I have a shelf of books on paranoid schizophrenia, book after book on plants, poetry, cooking. I know something of how things work — friendship and love, work and faith. I’ve learnt how to buy cute jeans and talk to my fellow humans. For now, I’m happy to have found the books again — to know they are out there, in case I have a question.

— New York Times News Service

Heather Sellers is the author of the memoir ‘You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know’.

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