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The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yōko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder I've always been a sucker for old men. I know that sounds strange, and there's really no rational reason for it. They just make me feel safe.

One of my late grandmother's favorite me stories is about me and my grandfather. I was about 3 years old when my mother dropped me off at their house, and I was inconsolable when she left. My grandma said her heart broke for me because rather than screaming and throwing a tantrum, I curled myself into a ball and silently wept, folding into my grief into myself. She said she had never felt so sorry for any pitiful creature as she did for me that day. No amount of hugs could console me, no tsk-tsking could calm my gulping sobs. She eventually brought me into her bedroom where my grandfather was sleeping, and laid me on his huge mountainous belly. There my sobs finally subsided and I fell asleep to the rhythm of the rise and fall of his breath.

This may be the genesis of my lifelong pull toward making lasting friendships with old, white-haired men. Whatever the reason, I've always made quick mentors of the old men in my office, have always scored higher grades with my old male professors. I tend to gravitate towards them and seek their wisdom and kindness.

This could be the reason I've always also been a sucker for the classic child-grandparent-figure stories. Karate Kid is one of my all-time favorite movies.

This is one of those books. The housekeeper who has only a son for a family connects with the old neglected professor, who then becomes a grandfather-figure for her father-less son. This is really the heart of the story.

The twist on the classic tale is that the lesson that family is where you find it and where you make it is tempered by the fact that the old professor has a memory that lasts only 80 minutes long. How do you form a bond with someone who cannot remember you? Is it real?

This book argues that you can and it is. The housekeeper cares for the Professor because of who he is - because he has a beautiful mind and because even though he can't remember her son from one day to the next, he loves children and accepts her son anew with open arms each time they meet. His affection for her is reciprocated only when they've had a long enough interaction where he can tell what kind of person she is, and he happens to like her. The beautiful, and frustrating, thing about this is he has to discover this over and over, but at the fact remains that he does.

The use of math in this book is used as a statement on the nature of family and love. In math, there are truths, but many of those truths are mysterious. So there is the truth that there are prime numbers, but the mystery is that there doesn't seem to be a pattern of when you can expect to find them. Family is the same way: there is the truth that family bonds are strong enough to overcome huge obstacles, but the mystery is in why we love the way we do, and who we love the way we do - it's not explainable, it just is. Why was I consoled as a child by my grandfather when my grandmother could not? Who knows? It's not explainable, it just is.

This is a beautiful book, one that I will treasure and probably read again.