Learning to read is the most important thing that ever happened to me.
My father taught me how to read long before it was broached at school by encouraging me to write a book. That’s the object represented by the line drawing. Entitled My Family, the actual artefact disappeared years ago, but I recall its general trajectory: I introduced each member – Mom, Dad, my brother and myself, possibly Buttons the cat and Budge the basset hound – before offering up a few bon mots about our favourite pursuits*.
[*When I was in Grade 2 Mom was called into school to discuss an essay I’d written about family life. I’ve no recollection of the assignment or its aftermath, but she told the story often and with tremendous pride. Apparently I’d described us as a loose collection of multi-faceted individuals who each went their own way, glancing off one another for occasional meals and other communal activities. My teacher, reading the essay, felt there might be psychological issues worth investigating. My mother, examining the identical text, declared her firstborn a genius who’d captured the household perfectly. And so I had, but that doesn’t mean Mrs. Gunderson didn’t have a point.]
My Family was bound with brass fasteners that you popped through punched holes, spreading the wings out on the other side to secure your pages. It was painstakingly hand lettered and illustrated with the crudest of stick figures. My drawing skills haven’t improved a bit after all these years, during which time my always eccentric penmanship eroded, a victim of the computer age.
From the day of “publication”, starting with Dick and Jane primers and moving rapidly to the contents of my parents’ shelves (I have an Iceberg Slim story, remind me to tell you some day), I have been a voracious reader. My first trip to a library – probably at the university where my dad taught – was a disaster. Stepping over the threshold I burst into tears, wailing, “I’ll never be able to read all of them, and they keep making more!”
I still feel that anguish just as keenly. I acquire books faster than I can read them, and I read swiftly. I can’t pass – much less enter – a charity shop, second-hand bookshop or even a chain outlet without my fingers itching. I bought a Kindle and named it Lorelei in honour of the woman who delighted in finding new places to wear diamonds – or store literature.
I lust for books. My appetite is insatiable. There is almost nothing I’d rather be doing than reading. (Imagine my delight as a teen when I discovered that our anatomical arrangement allows girls to read while self-pleasuring. Talk about intelligent design.)
When I ask my brother how he remembers my younger self, he says, “You always had your nose in a book.”
I remember returning from a play date somewhat shell-shocked. When Mom asked what was wrong, I said, “I don’t get it; there are no books in their house.”
A beauty from Donegal with whom I had a briefs encounter – never underestimate the seductive properties of Robert Frost paired with a tumbler of Jameson’s – turned to me, eyes shiny with excitement, to exclaim, “Aren’t words the most wonderful things?” Yes, I said, yes.
My ex-husband claimed he fell in love when he caught sight of my book collection and because I slept with a dictionary beside my bed. (I still do.) Years later I knew the marriage was over when he shouted, “Why do you have so fucking many books?”
In combination, words can be lethal or sentimental, hilarious or horrifying. Taken solo like the bonbons that they are, they offer much to delight ear and tongue, regardless of their meaning. Ineluctable is a goodie, but I plump for deliquescence and specificity every time, loving the way they play inside my mouth.
If only all relationships were as trouble-free and enduring as my love affair with words.