Monday, January 16, 2012

"It Was The Present Of A Friend."

When I was a child, there was no internet. We weren't allowed to watch TV during the day. Phone calls were strictly limited because we had to keep the line free in case my dad was needed to deliver a baby. And yes, I also walked to school three miles in the snow and uphill both ways, but that's a story for another time, Dear Ones.

Readers, I was a reader. That's what I did. If you asked me to do something for you or with you, I was likely to glower and snap "I'm reading." Oh, I had a few friends on the street, and half an hour a day I was forced to practice the piano, but chances are, the rest of the time you could find me reading.

I didn't read in a comfy chair, oh no. I lay on the carpet near the sliding glass door in my room (to this day I prefer natural light), propped on my elbows, chin in hand. It can't have been very comfortable to do this for hours at a time, but children are flexible, after all. I must have been about seven when I started this practice, and I was probably still doing it when I came home on college vacations.

I read a lot of things that stayed with me. All the Road Dahl books. The entire Little House series. The Five Little Peppers. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Harriet the Spy (oh, how I love her) and all the slightly-lesser sequels. The Pigman series. Every word Judy Blume ever wrote. A lot of them I received from my mother--she had great taste in books. She also took us to the library often and let us have at it. I especially loved books that took place in earlier times, when the author was likely to give lots of details about bolts of gingham and barrels of salt pork. When including raisins in the biscuits was "dear." Times of war and privation when people really appreciated a new dress or a squidge of blackstrap molasses with their teacake.

One of the series of which I read every word, I forgot about completely. Until, one day, I remembered. That day was two years ago, when my friend Jen S. gave Jarrah the book Betsy-Tacy for her fifth birthday. Inside, she wrote that this story was about two friends who meet at a fifth birthday party. I read that and burst into tears.

How had I forgotten Betsy and Tacy? And how lucky was I to be reminded of them now, when I had a daughter to introduce them to? A few weeks ago, I started reading the book to Jarrah. At first, I thought she would read it to me, as she often does these days. But she kept asking me to read. And unlike the time I tried to get her excited about A Cricket in Times Square, she didn't forget. This time I'd come into her room at bedtime and she'd have the book ready for me.

Now we are almost done. The last chapter is "Tib," because that is when Betsy and Tacy meet the last member of their terrible trio, and their adventures can begin afresh in the next book, natch: Betsy-Tacy and Tib. Tonight I looked up the author, Maud Hart Lovelace (b. 1892) and reviewed the series (ten in all, published between 1940 and 1955, which will take the girls from age 5 to 22.) Readers, my anticipation at re-encountering these books seems almost excessive.

Betsy-Tacy is an incredibly simple book. Two little girls live across the street from each other in a time that must be around 1910 (the girls' fathers drive horse and buggy to work) with their parents and siblings. They meet and are almost instantly best friends. Betsy is outgoing and imaginative; Tacy is shyer but just as creative. Their capacity to pretend is limitless, but their actual scope is tiny--just their street, the Big Hill above it and the view of town beyond. They are extremely happy (when a wealthy neighbor lady pays them a nickel apiece for jars of colored sand) very sad (Tacy's baby sister dies) and overwhelmed with confusion (Betsy is displaced as the youngest when her mother has another baby.) But the best moments are the simplest--when they are eating Tacy's mother's famous unfrosted cake and lovely chicken sandwiches and dreaming of visiting the magical-sounding Milwaukee, or deciding that a wandering chicken belongs to them and coaxing it to produce an egg.

As I read, I'm lulled to a place of gentle enchantment, marveling in the story and yet somehow recognizing every word, familiar with every tiny shift of emotion, as if it hadn't been decades since my first time. And I'm thrilled by Jarrah's attention--I love hearing her repeat the plot details to David when he goes to tuck her in afterward--she remembers everything, too. When I sobbed my way through the chapter in which Baby Bee dies, she watched me attentively--not precisely moved or unmoved, not confused but not certain, either. Her look was one of discovery--my expression and voice becoming part of whatever revelations were contained in the story itself.

I don't yet know how Jarrah will truly feel about reading. Sure, I've done all the things you're supposed to do--read to her at bedtime every night, made sure she's surrounded by books, and possibly most important--modeling how important reading is to me. But that can backfire, too. One day, in a tantrum-y rage, she responded to my suggestion that she "read quietly in your room for a while" with "I DON'T LIKE READING" and I couldn't help but shoot back "Why don't you just STAB ME IN THE HEART?" Only time will tell if she's a real reader or someone who just gives lip service to that label. Or (horrors) someone who feels no real need to read at all.

What I know right now is this: when I imagined the most precious moments of parenting, the ones that are burnished-Saturday-Evening-Post-glow-with-crackling-fire-and-cocoa kind of moments, I imagined them exactly like this. Me, reading aloud one of my most beloved books from childhood. She, listening with rapt attention and shining eyes.

I want to believe it will last.


Lisa Morales said...

Lovely,Sam. That elbows-down girl was me, too. Nancy Drew, and the Little House series. I saw that, and Five Little Peppers in a used bookstore last week and exclaimed aloud, "I loved those!" I was looking for Hardy Boys books, which my son just began, and my father adored. I, too, have a reader.

Nicole E. said...

Amazing! I love it Sam! It makes me want to go get these books and see what they're all about. I always loved when you would recommend a good book to me! I love reading, but I struggle with finding the good ones! Any recommendations? ;)

Sam said...

@Lisa: Yes, loved Nancy Drew, too! Was so disappointed to discover they were all written by different people!

@Nicole: Hi, dear! Just finished one that I loved so much I made David read it: _Bel Canto_ by Ann Patchett. Based on a real hostage incident in South America. Couldn't put it down! :)

Stephanie said...

This is really beautiful.

I agree with Nicole, your book recommdations, actually your reviews, are the best--often better than the books themselves.

Mrs. Chapman's 2nd Grade Class said...

Oh I loved this post....stab me in the heart. Thats just how I'd feel. As a teacher I read so many books to my students and try to connect them with some type of literature they'll connect with. I want them to love reading. I hope Ellie loves reading. Right now she has a couple favorites that we read each night. It's such a wonderful thing to hold your daughter and read to her. :)