My 5-year-old son and I are sitting side by side on the couch reading. I with Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, a book I should have read long ago and he another A-Z Mystery. I have a bag of chips on my left and every few pages he raises his hand out, without speaking for another chip. My 7-year-old is elsewhere in the house, probably in the smallest space between two pieces of furniture, curled up with his own book.
When I daydreamed about being a parent, this is what I dreamed of.
When I was a child, you could not get my head out of a book. I started reading at 3 and a half years old, my first word was the word CUSTOM on the inside of the door of our Ford Pinto. The first day of kindergarten I frightened the other children by bringing a book to school, “just in case I got bored”. My favorite reading spot was in our hall closet. The Ungame, Simon and Stay Alive, were shoved on the shelves that lined both sides of the closet and an old trunk fit perfectly in the middle creating a perfect spot for me to sit. The door had wooden slats on the top, allowing enough light to read by to penetrate through the gaps. My family would walk right by the closet not knowing I was reading inside.
Nothing delighted me more than signing up for the summer reading program at the Whittier Public Library. Bonnie, the children’s librarian, enchanted me. She’d give us each a cut out of an animal, knight or baseball with our name on it. We’d watch as each week it moved from “Book 1” to “Book 2” on massive wall that seemed three stories high to me, finally resting at Book 8, the magical number a child needed to read to be included at the end of summer party. This was also the number of books research showed prevented the summer slide. I couldn’t wait to sit down each week to deliver my oral report to Ms. Bonnie, on Beezus and Ramona or a Nancy Drew mystery. She seemed to be the only other person in the world as interested in books as I was.
In junior high we moved to a duplex on the edge of Chet Holifield Park, in Montebello, CA. Our new home was the same street my mother had grown up on, her mother still lived across the street. On the other side of our fence, the park flood lights invaded our rooms at night, as did the sounds of either late night soccer games or gang fights, we weren’t always sure which. At the edge of this park was a small library. I could walk to the library every day if I wanted to and somedays I did. It is this library that I associate with Al Capone. I had outgrown the children’s section, back then there were no YA books to bridge the gap, so I started researching topics that interested me. Al Capone captivated me and I read every book the one room library had on him, all three. Full of curiosity, I looked at black and white pictures of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, I suppose it was the first time I realized there was evil in the world.
High school English class brought the classics into my life and the beauty of language, poetry and the knowledge that others had also felt the longing that ached in my own soul. I read Whitman, Thoreau, and fell in love with the distinctly American identity of the 19th century writers. When I went off to college I knew I wanted to major in English Literature but it was an amazing teacher in a survey class of Victorian Lit that opened up another world to me, of Shelley, Austen and Bronte.
In another life, I was to teach, to share this love of literature and language but life got in the way. My life now is such that I’m not often around people who love books as much as I do. I miss that. I miss talking about books as if they are a dear friend, the one who got me through a tough batch in my life or the one I went on vacation with. Yet, here on the couch with my son, I find a second chance. The very thing I have wanted might be found in my own family.