We have this occasional exchange, usually at night, my husband and me. “You should read this book,” he or I say, whoever gets to their bookmarked page first. And then we go off to our separate lands on the pages in front of us and leave it at that. We know it is probably unlikely. But it reached an escalation, recently, when I switched the ‘should’ with ‘have’, as in “You HAVE to read this book.” And then he copied me, holding up his book so I couldn’t miss it, “and you have to read this.” He had just finished his book and dropped it onto my comforter covered body so that it landed right where my lap would be if I had been sitting up.
I had just returned from the library a few days before and had quite a pile on my bedside table. And I really wanted him read MY book. I sensed a stalemate coming (the gift of two decades of marriage is, above all, clear awareness of the future as evidenced by history.) I knew that if I didn’t show good faith and make a scene of starting the one he handed me right then and there he was not going to proceed with mine.
For years I didn’t have the stamina to read for personal pleasure. Toddlers, young kids, the general frenzy of parenting wore me out. I fell asleep within seconds of lying flat. There was a time when three of my kids were all under five. In order to keep them in bed at the same time each night I discovered that if I sat in the hallway and read loud enough it worked. They stayed in bed. My reading to them was initially a thing I was doing to just check off my list, my list that seemed to be increasing daily with input from the world about what parents should do to raise well-adjusted kids.
This picture of me reading to my newborn proves this. I stumbled upon it recently. There was my two week old, propped on my shoulder as I read him Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon. His eyes didn’t even focus yet. He was not even looking in the general direction of the book. I think he was just working on basics, like burping. But I knew that reading to kids mattered and I was not about to be deterred by his lack of interest—and, anyway, I couldn’t think of things to talk about all day to someone who didn’t answer back.
But one day, years later, while I was standing in my kitchen getting ready to make dinner, something small -but actually very large-transpired that shifted and magnified my understanding of the irreplaceable gift of sharing books, something more important to me than what studies proved about reading to kids. I was in the midst of reading Lemony Snicket’s, The Unfortunate Series of Events, with my second son who was probably around ten.
As usual, strands of hair were in my eyes because my hair grows toward my forehead and it was a constant problem, I always took notice of people who had well placed cowlicks right in the front of their foreheads. My bangs, usually in some stage of being grown out, interfered when I was trying to concentrate on something- unless I had them pushed back in a holder of some sort. When I was trying to look attractive I always used gel, but it was not enough for more serious tasks, like quickly chopping onions for dinner. I started searching for a headband but only found one of those thick rubber bands that holds together broccoli stalks in the kitchen drawer. I hastily fastened them out of the way, oddly, in a rush. My son walked in soon after, glancing at my hair, mentioning something about Violet. I instantly felt understood, the passage we had read together landing simultaneously, silently between us.
“Anyone who knew Violet well could tell she was thinking hard, because her long hair was tied up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes. Violet had a real knack for inventing and building strange devices, so her brain was often filled with images of pulleys, levers, and gears, and she never wanted to be distracted by something as trivial as her hair.” Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning
A few years later the same thing happened, but in reverse. My youngest at the time (maybe nine) was immersed in the Harry Potter series and I was no longer reading to anyone. Finally, my reading time was my own at night. Until he decided that I must absolutely read the series as well. I was a little resentful because I had been waiting all those years for my own books. And fantasy was never my first choice as a genre. (I am embarrassed to admit this, because, of course, everyone should read Harry Potter.) He did not give up. Every night I would find The Sorcerer’s Stone, right on top of my cultivated pile of books I was collecting to read. When he saw that wasn’t working, he’d place it on my pillow. Each morning at breakfast he’d ask me if I started it. Guilt seeped in and I relented.
Weeks later I noticed that my kitchen broom was missing from the pantry. It was a special broom—I had bought it at an Amish fair before I had a house or kids. It was made by a craftsman who told me he had a PhD in broom making. I didn’t even know that was a thing. Anyway, I love that broom. It has been with me- it has prevailed -through couscous, pistachio shells, spilled dog food, cleat shaped dried mud, broken glass. I think of that bearded man who sold it to me all the time. When the broom reappeared a few days later, back in its spot, I was relieved. I didn’t notice right away the new inscription. But when I did, I was flooded again by a specific warmth of connection, of understanding, of suddenly knowing how he saw that broom in Potteresque fantasical light. I will never part with it.
The book that I wanted my husband to read was Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. I had loved it so much that I cried at the end and felt the loss of Ove from my life so concretely that Ove might as well have been alive. When my husband finally started it, I would ask him about Ove as if I didn’t even know.
“What’s Ove up to now?” I asked him here and there.
And then one night we were having dinner with a mutual older friend who is sometimes a bit complex in his dealings with others. There are moments when his stories make us gasp a little. He has a bad foot and walking far is difficult for him. Apparently, the post office in his town had special fifteen minute spots right in front. But they were always full. Our friend was sure that the employees were using the temporary spots for themselves. Since he knew the police chief in town, he gave him a call to see if the situation could be fixed. And indeed, it was, a few days later.
My husband looked over at me as he told us the story.
Just like Ove,” he said.
“Ahhh, yes, the morning security walks,” I replied, as that little connective warmth seeped through the spaces of my body that suddenly felt a little less alone.