July 22, 2004
Turning The Pages of Childhood
"Mommy, will you read to me?"
My 10-year-old daughter asks me this question every night. Even if I'm exhausted, or just want some time to myself, I almost always say yes. Before I turn around, she'll be 11, then 12, then a teenager.
She will no longer need her reading fix with Mommy. "Time will not be ours forever," as Ben Jonson wrote back in 1607, when the printed word was still a new invention. I want to make this time with my daughter last.
My husband and I also have three sons who are older than Yael, which means I have clocked 15 solid years of reading aloud to our children. Because we have worked to instill a love for the written word in them, Yael's requests to have me read to her make me feel that we have succeeded.
I take special delight in being asked to read to a child who has already read on her own for several years. (And her brothers all did the same thing.) Admittedly, if we allowed them to watch TV or play computer games for hours on end, the children may well have preferred to experience some frenetic galactic explosions on the screen to having me read to them. But we didn't, and we have been rewarded richly for it. Over the years we have enjoyed countless delicious reading experiences together: Roald Dahl's magical "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"; E.B. White's timelessly charming "Charlotte's Web"; Beverly Cleary's series about the irrepressible Ramona and Henry Huggins; and so many more.
I also take particular delight in reading to my children when they are already independent readers because I missed this kind of quiet growing up. Memories of my childhood are filled with the theme song to "Bonanza" bouncing out from one bedroom where my father watched, competing with the canned laugh track of "The Odd Couple" in the den, where my Mom and I watched. We watched others live imaginary lives more than we talked about our own real ones, and sat passively more than we engaged with one another.
I'm secretly happy that my kids complain -- not about wanting to watch TV -- but about a lack of books in the house. This, despite the groaning weight of books, often double-stacked, on every inch of bookshelf space we have in every room in the house. Their reading appetites are insatiable. Even when I read to Yael, one or two of her older brothers sometimes drift in to the room and take a seat. After all, who could resist this exchange between Charlotte and Wilbur -- no doubt the most endearing spider and pig to ever grace the pages of a children's book:
"Why did you do all this for me?" Wilbur asked. "I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you."
"You have been my friend," Charlotte replied. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that."
Who could ever tire of reading exquisite children's writing like this, with elegant philosophy thrown in?
My husband and I may have fostered our kids' love of the written word by reading to them when they were small, but they have continued to develop the passion on their own. Sure, it may partly owe to a Nintendo-deprived existence, but so what? In learning to love to read, they have also learned to love learning for its own sake. They have made this gift their own, and it will enhance their lives for as long as God grants them time on this earth.
As much as their reading thrills me, sometimes, even I have to pry their faces out from behind of a book. Even reading, taken to extremes, can become an isolating activity. I can't always stop them from reading in the car, under the kitchen table, in the bathroom and, of course, under the blanket late at night, but there are a lot worse problems a parent can have.
When our kids are all grown up, I hope that their memories of our reading together, snuggling on the couch or in bed, will be among the most meaningful of their childhoods. I know that they already are for me. If I'm lucky, Yael will continue to ask me to read to her for many chapters yet to come.
Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News Service. More of her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.