I am riding my bike to my grandparent’s house as I do almost every day of the summer. I take the curve on Touvelle a little faster than I should, but I like to feel the speed and my control over it. I drift onto Sugar Street and pedal hard down the hill before turning up the alley to the back of their yard. I lean my bike against the wall of their old wooden garage and hop the two steps to their back door. The screen door slams behind me as I burst into their kitchen. Grandpa could be sitting at the table playing solitaire, or he could be out on the front porch watching the cars pass, or he could be on one of his walks around the block. But I know right where to find Grandma. She is sitting in her corner of the couch. She may have a glass of water on the end table beside her. She may have orange slices in her lap. But she will definitely have a library book in her hands and a stack of them waiting nearby.
My grandmother grew up in a strict German Catholic household in the early decades of the 20th century. She was the second oldest of 12 children. She learned to be quiet and modest, or maybe that is just the way she chose to be. I remember her as being kind and gentle, but I didn’t know her the way that I now wish I could have. I believe that there were stories inside of her that I never got to hear. However, there was one that she liked to tell.
She attended a one room schoolhouse, where all of the grades were mixed together. The teacher presented them with a sentence that they all had to attempt reading out loud. I don’t know what the sentence was or if it was in a book or on the chalkboard, but I do know that it included the word “minute” as in tiny or small. My grandmother, though younger than most children in the class, was the only student who pronounced the word correctly. Telling this story was the closest Grandma ever came to bragging.
She left school after eighth grade in order to work and help support her younger siblings’ educations. I wonder now what would have happened if she had been allowed to continue, if she had lived in a time and place where value was placed on the intelligence and education of girls. I don’t think she begrudged that fact that her education was cut short. I believe she accepted it as the way things were. But I don’t really know. I never asked.
She went to work as a housekeeper/nanny in a city seventy-five miles from home. The man of the house happened to be the head librarian in that city’s library. He brought her books home from the library which she then devoured at night after his children were put to bed.
My grandmother, though uneducated by today’s standards, had an intense love of words and reading that she passed down to her four children, all of whom are, to this day, voracious readers. One of those children became my mother.
I am sitting on the couch listening to my mother read James and the Giant Peach to my older brother. Stashed behind the pillow beside me sits my selection, waiting for the moment when James is finished for the night. As my mother closes the book, my hand darts behind the pillow to pull out my book before Mom rises from the couch. It’s time for bed or dishes or baths or something. But, of course, she cannot say no to a book, or the small hand holding it out to her. She is her mother’s daughter.
Fast forward twenty years:
I am barely 23 years old and I am standing at the door of the home I share with my husband. I wave goodbye to my mother as she backs out of my Kentucky driveway heading back to her Ohio home, leaving me with the small bundle I have cradled in my arms and no idea how I am even going to be able to take a shower. I unwrap the small bundle and lay her down on a blanket. I am a young mother and this is the first time that I am alone in the house with my week old daughter. My daughter. I do what comes naturally. I lie down beside her, open a book, and hold it out over our heads.
“A told B and B told C,
“I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.
“Whee!” said D to EFG,
“I’ll beat you to the top of the coconut tree.”
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
Will there be enough room?
Her arms and legs stiffen and her eyes go wide. She kicks and gurgles and purses her lips. She is hooked. Hooked on the book. Just like the generations before her.
That baby is now reading The Life of Pi (per her mother’s recommendation).
My son, who used to live “down by the station early in the morning,” will meet Atticus and Scout Finch soon. And Cheerio has traded Brown Bear, Brown Bear and what he saw for Katniss Everdeen and her favorable odds.
I have shared tears with each one of them over the ending of a book, usually because a dog has died, because there are so many dead dogs.
We battled each other over who gets the copy of the next Harry Potter first. (I always won).
For me, the walls of motherhood will always be papered with Sam I Am, Max and his Wild Things, “Caps for sale! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!” and Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. There is no memory stronger than the weight of my children on my lap as we read together. I may have made many, many mistakes. I may have yelled more than I should. I may have played less than I should. But I know I did this one thing right. I read to them. I read to them.
And someday, someday, they may come to me with bundles of their own. I will take those bundles and unwrap them, placing them on a blanket and, lying down beside them, I will hold a book over our heads. And I will read.
A told B and B told C,
“I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.”
I still have my copy.