Books, Family, and Reading

The Reading Mother

I had a mother who read to me
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea.
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth;
“Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath.

I had a Mother who read me lays
Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
Which every boy has a right to know.

I had a Mother who read me tales
Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,
True to his trust till his tragic death,
Faithfulness lent with his final breath.

I had a Mother who read me the things
That wholesome life to the boy heart brings-
Stories that stir with an upward touch.
Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be –
I had a Mother who read to me.

Strickland Gillilan (1869–1954)

Strickland Gillilan was an American poet and humorist. I had never heard of him, though they say he’s famous and his work (now public domain mostly) is on greeting cards, especially this poem, popular on Mother’s Day.

I found this poem astonishingly moving, and it makes me think of my grandmothers–both of whom had December birthdays–but especially my grandmother on my mother’s side. She read to me and my sister whenever we were at her house. Winnie the Pooh. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Robin Hood. Mary Poppins. Poetry—this Gillilan poem reminded me instantly of Ogden Nash’s Tale of Custard the Dragon, one of our family favorites. When we were old enough to read on our own, the question was always, “So, what are you reading now?” I was an adult before I realized that the implication was “of course you are reading something at all times”.

My grandma and mom were always exchanging paperbacks—Nora Lofts, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart. (Yeah, notice a trend there? I come by the genre naturally!) I was excited when I got to be old enough to read “their” books, too. My grandmother on Dad’s side was always doing crossword puzzles, acrostics, word jumbles, or some other sort of word puzzle.

Not to be sexist in the discussion by any means—my grandfather (my dad’s dad) always had a history book by his chair. Civil war, usually. Dad preferred mysteries and the men’s adventure tales—John McDonald, Ian Fleming, and so forth—as well as the legal thrillers and history books.

I remember taking a survey in elementary school and one of the questions was “How many books are in your house?” My first reaction was “Oh, #($*@—I’m expected to count them all??” Then I realized the multiple choice answers only went to “more than 100”, which I knew as ludicrously low. It was years before I realized that meant they people to use the other four answers, too. As I got older, I met folks who threw paperback books away when they were done reading them. Turns out this isn’t actually a crime. Who knew?

And when I had kids of my own, I was always perplexed by the people who so earnestly suggested that I read aloud to them—what was next? Earnestly “suggesting” I feed them? From Chicka Chicka ABC to Percy Jackson, yeah, I read to my kids. No, they’re not toddlers any more, and yes, we still read together.

It never occurred to me growing up that any of this was odd. That reading wasn’t an important part of daily life of every family member in every family. That keeping and treasuring (okay, hording…) books was in any way unusual. That having a book—or two, if you’re nearly done with the first—in your purse wasn’t usual. (And this was seriously pre-e-reader!) To me, it’s just the way life is supposed to be.

And will be for my children, if I have any say in the matter.

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