My Grandfather passed away on Friday. He was my last living grandparent, and while I fully realize it is rare to be my age and have any grandparents at all, I still feel the loss. In this brief calm before the storm of travel plans and work arrangements and ‘does my black dress still fit?’ I find myself just thinking back at the time I had with him and my Grandmother who passed away about 10 years ago. And the two constants that are present in almost every memory I have are 1) food and 2) books.
Quality Family Time in my house meant everyone sitting in the same room, silently reading different books and not talking to each other. This was as true during holidays and visits from my grandparents as it was on any normal Sunday afternoon. The kitchen was where you stood on hard linoleum floors, leaned against counters and talked for hours. The living room was for reading, quietly, or you’d be banished to the downstairs where the toys and little kids were.
My grandparents (and aunts and uncles and cousins for that matter) were never shy about loaning/giving us books either, rarely taking the time to consider our age or probable reading level before doing so. The first trashy romance novel I ever read was handed to me by my Grandpa. Whether he knew it was a trashy romance novel when he gave it to me is something I’ve chosen not to speculate too much about. One of my aunts gave me The Mists of Avalon when I was eleven or twelve. Most adults would have considered that title too mature for a kid who had just stopped believing in Santa Clause, but that thought never appeared to cross anyone in my family’s mind.
The adults in my family read everything from Harry Potter to historical non-fiction, to murder mysteries to literary fiction. In my house, my grandparents’ house, every aunt and uncle I have’s house there are tall, wide, bookshelves filled end to end with books. If I found an interesting title during a holiday or visit, I was encouraged to take it home and finish it and bring it back whenever. I have a vivid image of my grandparents’ car in the years they drove to see us frequently. The beige interior with Grandma’s knitting bag on the floor and a water bottle and a book tucked into the pocket on the passenger side door.
One of my favorite stories about my grandma, involves a run in she had with a librarian. They had just moved to a new town, a very small town in Northern Minnesota, and like always, the first thing she did was go down to the public library to get a card. When she refused to sign her name “Mrs. Warren George Hutchinson” and insisted on signing it “Lilly Karolina Hutchinson” (“Because that’s. my. name.” she yelled whenever recounting the story) the librarian refused to issue her the card. My grandmother came back home, spitting and swearing and refusing to comply. It was the only town they ever lived in where they didn’t visit the library every week.
And in my own growing up, we visited the library regularly, read stories at bedtime and had shelves and shelves of books along the wall. In all other respects my parents monitored us closely and had very strict rules. The list of television shows we were allowed to watch was short, and you had to put in a code to unlock the tv before watching anything at all. We had early curfews, supervised parties and had to check in when we changed our plans. But when it came to books, there were never any restrictions, no barriers erected between us and what we were allowed to read. And maybe because no one ever told me that I had to read books of this Lexile score or that AR level because of some arbitrary test I’d taken, I read well beyond my age range and probably comprehension level. But see — that’s how I grew as a person and a reader.
I often joke that my library career began in the 7th grade when I volunteered to be a lunchtime helper in the Media Center of my middle school. My motivations were purely selfish, I wanted the override codes so I could check out more than 6 books to myself at once. I’d take stacks of them home every day and exchange them for another stack the next. I probably read every book in that library by the time I was done. And no one in my family ever thought that was strange.
Books were such a ubiquitous part of my life that it never occurred to me not everyone grew up like that. It never occurred to me that some toddlers don’t pull books off the shelf and plop with them into your lap, because some toddlers don’t have books on their shelf, or know what do do with them when they do. At work, I hear parents tell children they can’t check out books because they can’t afford the overdue fees and I want to cry and then give that kid my entire childhood book collection, long since passed on to younger cousins and nephews and nieces.
And I see teens who view reading as a chore because they only encounter it in school where it comes with exams and worksheets and standardized tests. Who also don’t have walls of books in their house, because their parents need that money to help keep them all alive. I see teens who devour books like forbidden fruit and parents who shake their heads and mutter, “I don’t get you, kid” while I stand in the corner and cry.
Not everyone has to like the same thing. There is value to many things and many ways to learn and grow. But it is so hard for me to imagine a life where reading is not an every day occurrence, where adults are not only tolerant of books, but earnest about them. Earnest about giving and loaning and recommending them. Earnest about reading stories to toddlers and helping older kids sound out the hard words and buying books for teens for their birthday.
When I think of my grandparents, I think about books. About my 4 year-old self who on one Sunday afternoon decided she wanted to join the Readers’ Club and so fetched Hop on Pop from her bedroom shelf, sat down in the middle of the living room floor and read it aloud to her grandparents. I think of how my mom marked her place with a bookmark and looked at me with mild surprise before saying, “That was lovely, Sarah, where did you learn to read?” And my grandfather saying, “It’s about time, too,” before winking at me and going back to his own thick, dense, volume. Let me reiterate that I was four.
I grew up knowing that books were my window into other worlds. That they would teach me things and make me feel things and broaden my horizons. I owe that to my parents, my aunts and uncles, and to my grandparents who up until the very end of their lives were plugging away through books of all genres and sizes.
Thank you for the gifts, Grandpa.
It was a really good trashy romance novel ;)