Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – February 17, 2004
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – February 17, 2004 – Reading is like breathing – one of the most essential things in my life. I can’t imagine my world without the beauty of the written word or my life without the gift of reading.
When I was in grade one, I attended a country public school where eight grades sat in rows in one large school house. There were about 45 students in grades one through eight and Miss Cook was our teacher. She fit the bill of the never-married school “marm” – with her hair tucked up into a hair net, very practical oxfords (always perfectly polished), practical below the knee, pattered dresses sensibly buttoned up to the neck (I recall that she had a penchant for blue). I remember that she had a moustache (not like General Custer) but a natty growth on her upper lip, like many women of her time. “Nair” wasn’t a big seller in rural Ontario.
I thought Miss Cook was the best thing ever. She kept a firm hand on her charges, and some of them would have been a challenge. Big, burly grade eight guys, repeating the grade for the third time and grade eight girls with tight sweaters and hormones simmering like soup in a copper pot. We had to go outside at breaks – rain, sleet, snow or sunshine.
She came out to the front of the school house after recess and lunch hour with a big black-handled school bell that she rang ferociously to let us know that it was time to reconvene for class. Lunch break was from noon until 1:00 p.m. and once we were settled in our seats, it was time for the highlight of my day.
Miss Cook always read to us for half an hour. Sometimes if she was at a particularly exciting part of a book, she extended story time for an extra fifteen minutes. She read mysteries, biographies, fiction and poetry – anything she thought would capture our imaginations. I think I learned my love of reading from Miss Cook and I’m eternally thankful to her for that gift. She made books come alive for me.
I learned to read in that one room school house – out loud in front of other students. Talk about ordeal by fire. If it wasn’t a kid in your own grade who was making faces at you behind the teacher’s back – it was some big lug in grade eight telling you that you were small, stupid and ugly to boot. But some how I survived those early years and in retrospect I’m glad that my public school days were simple, honest and very real.
I was always good at English, spelling and reading. Books allowed me to escape to anywhere in the world with anyone. Throughout public school I was never gender specific in my imagination. I was just as happy pretending to be Tinker Bell as I was sailing the high seas as Christopher Columbus.
I imagined myself a virgin about to be sacrificed by the Incas one day and a handsome prince the next. Reading brought the world to my door step. I had a well worn library card and loved having a stack of books in my bedroom. Sometimes I was reading more than one book at a time, and often stole extra reading time in my bedroom, long after lights out.
When my brothers and I were small, my parents took turns reading to us at night before we went to sleep. Our family home had a large landing at the top of the staircase and the doors to the four bedrooms and bathroom opened onto this landing. Mom or Dad would sit in the middle of the landing and once we were all tucked safely into bed, the designated reader would open up the current book and read to us as we fell asleep. We got to pick a book in turns. So one day we were listening to Tom Sawyer and another to Huck Finn, Beautiful Joe or Black Beauty. I remember I went through a phase when I choose to have a book that I adored re-read about five times in a row.
I think it was about Paddy The Beaver and Poor Mrs. Quack. My brothers shrieked their objections to yet another round of ‘beaver and duck’ – but free choice was the rule, and Mrs. Quack triumphed. I know I had to endure a tome on making birch bark canoes at one time and Eric loved the Hardy Boys mysteries, when I would rather have listened to Trixie Belden. Mike had a penchant for books on opera at one point when he wanted to stat a rock band. I’m not sure how they were connected – but he did indeed become a member of a band called The Tombstones!
My parents were both voracious readers. They had a lovely week-end custom of reading out loud to one another. Because they had three small children and not much money, they developed ways of entertaining themselves at home and reading was one of them. I remember sneaking downstairs one Saturday night in the winter. I may have been five or six at the time. I was supposed to be fast asleep. I always had my bedroom door left slightly ajar so I could see the light from the hall lamp, and on this particular evening I could hear them talking.
So even though I knew it was lights out, I was drawn to their voices. I padded down the stairs in my sock feet and peeked around the door to the living room. There was a fire crackling in the fireplace and a decanter of sherry on the coffee table. My Father was sitting on the end of the sofa and my Mother was curled up beside him with her head on his shoulder. One hand was resting on his thigh and the other held a glass of sherry. He held a book open with both hands and was reading out loud to her.
The snapshot of them like that is imprinted forever in my mind’s eye. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was such a sensual moment. I wonder if anyone in our fast-paced world ever shares this type of simple pleasure these days? If not, what a shame.
Reading and literacy are such gifts. I can’t imagine a life without books on history, books about other cultures and books on travel and the mysteries of life. I wouldn’t want to miss the satisfaction of devouring a good book on a cold winter day, or forget the joy of a lyrical poem that transforms my mood on a dull, dark day. It is never too late to start reading. If you’re so inclined – start a book club or just trade some titles with close friends and then have an evening telephone call where you chat about the characters.
Millions of people around the world can’t read and countless others have no libraries and no money for books. Some cultures have endured years of deprivation, where books and learning were forbidden.
So pick up a book – take a literary journey – volunteer to read to the blind – buy a book for a friend who is ill – drop your dated magazines off to a women’s shelter or start a collection of your favourite authors.
There are no limits to what you can learn from books. You can read about anyone – anytime – anywhere. Books are a delightful form of art, and in our cities and towns they are free for the asking in our well-stocked libraries. So do not waste another moment, be grateful that you can pick up a book and start to read – you will never regret it.