Sunday, June 21, 2009
Just One of My Father's Legacies
My childhood was rich in the cadence of words, both written and heard. There was always the sound of my father's voice telling stories, and the image of my father in the middle of everything, quietly reading a book.
My family had books everywhere. Bookshelves lined our den and bedrooms, corner shelves were stacked full with books in the living room and dining room, and books crept onto the polished tops of coffee and end tables. My father never used bookmarks or even turned down the corners of pages; he was—and still is—a spine-breaker. He left his trail face-down, books sprawled out on surfaces, waiting to be picked up again, their spines permanently arched and cracking.
My father could be alone in a house full of us. The bustle of the family could hum all around him while he sat, cross-legged, rubbing the corner of a page between thumb and forefinger. "Jim," my mother would say for the fourteenth time, and he'd look up, eyes mystified and foggy under his black-rimmed glasses. Any true reader knows that to swim to the surface and bob up into reality can be disorienting.
My father has never been a monogamous reader. He splits his time between his bedroom novel, his coffee table magazines, his scientific journals, his biblical texts, and whatever anyone else is reading. He reads every book my mother brings home from the library and cannot be in my house for 10 minutes without visiting the nearest bookshelf and pulling out a book. He's easy to find and predictable, there on the green couch with his legs crossed and his thumb and forefinger doing their page rubbing.
But my father has never been stingy with his love of reading. The earliest recording of my voice is me at about age three with my father. "What do you want me to read?" he asks in his gentle Southern Illinois drawl, like the rolling hills of an orchard. I answer back in the same accent, "Just any ol' thing, Daddy." Though my mother was my daytime reader, my father read to us each evening from the big white Pearl S. Buck story Bible.
After supper and on long car trips, he was a storyteller. He knew how—still does know how— to tell a story. He knew all about character development, plot, climax, conflict, and denouement, and he used those devices with skillful ease. He is a master storyteller, rich in language and suspense.
A passion for reading is certainly not the only gift my father has given to me, but it is perhaps the one that links my life so solidly to his. This we share more deeply than our delight in the perfect sail or a slice of the sweetest peach: a passion for words, both written and spoken, for the sound of language and the joy of a well-turned phrase, and for sheer delight of a perfectly good book.
(Repost from SmallWorld Reads. My apologies to those of you who subscribe to both!)