Monday, April 18, 2016

A Blast from the Past

I haven't posted in quite awhile. One reason is that my darling granddaughter, Diana Audrey, started walking at 9 months. I am significantly older than that and while I love her to the moon and back, after a day of trying to get to the bathroom before she is able to drop any toys into the toilet, I'm ready to crash. Adaline, on the other hand, is nearly four and the older she gets, the less work she is. Her favorite thing is to hide under the quilt on our bed while Marty and I (and occasionally Diana) pretend to be dragons, badgers, owls or foxes and pounce on her. :-)

Anyway, April has always been my favorite month. Spring is in the air, flowers are starting to bloom - what's not to like? Well, this year it has taken on new meaning. It's now the month my mother died. My mom had been fading for the past few months, but the end came faster than any of us had anticipated. We're all still trying to take it in. My sisters and I all made posterboards to bring to the funeral, made up of a gazillion pictures of our mom taken over the years. We also brought framed pictures of Mom, plus any memorabilia we could find. I brought Mom's high school yearbook and a photo album she put together when I was born. My sisters brought family-related papers for us all to browse through, including a memory book we put together for Mom and Dad's 50th anniversary. (They would have celebrated their 65th anniversary in June.)

One of the papers my sisters brought was something I'd written years ago and had totally forgotten. I wrote it after reading an essay called "Studying Students" by Roger Rosenblatt in the May 12, 1997 issue of TIME magazine.

I titled my piece, "On Reading, Writing and Remembering." Here it is:

Three events in my life converged this week, overlapping and eclipsing each other until they briefly became one. The first was a physical event - my first book, SMALL GARDENS, was published. The second was a week-long "happening" at the elementary school my son attends where, as P.T.O. president, I helped organize daily events to help celebrate Right to Read Week. The third hardly seems to classify as an event at all: after spending the day telling five classes of fourth-graders what it's like to be a freelance garden writer, I collapsed into my favorite comfy chair to read the issue of TIME magazine that came in the mail today. On the very last page, an essay caught my eye. Written by Roger Rosenblatt, a teacher - a professor, to be precise - the essay zoomed in on a moment when his students had each been given a flower with instructions to describe its scent and to follow their noses into the past. The students were lost in thought, in the stillness before the pen hits the paper.

Rosenblatt's essay crystallized the moment so clearly that his students, with pens poised and childhood memories of rose bouquets and lilac-bowered rectories flashing across their intent faces, were as vivid to me as if he had encased their images in a paperweight. Stumbling across a well-written essay is a secret delight, like a sudden whiff of honeysuckle on a sultry summer day. I imagine teachers feel this way when, amid the daily repetition of earnestly pencilled, ragged lines, a spark ignites. A turn of phrase, a carefully chosen word, a picture neatly painted without a brush. The moment when a child with a pencil in his hand discovers he has the power to create something where nothing was before.

To anyone who has the urge to write, I would first tell them to read. In my family reading is an obsession. My husband, daughter and I read everything we can get out hands on. My son was slower to discover the joys of reading - when I found books wedged between the slats of his bunk bed, where he could pull them out at night, it was a cause for celebration.

I read whatever I can, whenever and wherever I can. Before I had my own books, I read the backs of cereal boxes and random books I pulled off grown-up bookshelves, which is how I came to read A Berlin Diary at age eleven, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at twelve. My joy at discovering an author whose words can transport me to magical places is hard to describe. I'm a book lover, not a book collector. If there are gilt-edged, leather-bound books on my shelves it's purely by accident. My most treasured books are worn and dog-eared from being read over and over again.

I find it hard to narrow my favorites down to a Top Ten or even a Top Hundred. Thinking of favorites takes me back the same way Rosenblatt's students were transported by memories of flower scents. I was home with the Asian flu at age nine, feeling sorry for myself as I struggled to keep down a cup of cream of tomato soup, when I burrowed under the covers and read - in one sitting - Scott O'Dell's ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. I remember how my throat thickened with tears, the first time a book made me cry. Reading the same book aloud to my son years later, we both got so choked up at the same part that we had to take a break and finish reading it later.

Before I could read, my parents and grandparents read to me. I still love THE TALL BOOK OF MAKE BELIEVE. If it was still in print, I'd buy copies for every child I know. My grandfather always read to me from his copy of "THE TALES OF BRE'R RABBIT." I knew how to find it - it was in the bookcase to the right of the fireplace, a red cloth-covered book with a black crescent on the binding. In the same way, my granddaughters - ages one and almost four - know just where to find their favorite books. It's important to know where the good books are.

I remember the excitement of exploring shelves of books in the Elk Grove Village library, when it was housed in a ranch house behind the IGA back when we'd watch the planes take off over the cornfields near O'Hare. It was such a thrill to come across a Nancy Drew book I hadn't already read. Those silhouettes inside the covers assured me of high adventure within.

In middle school, I discovered poetry, from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Blue Flag in the Bog" to e.e. cummings to Ferlinghetti to Amy Lowell and back. Around that time, I ventured outside the world of mystery, into other genres. The first time my husband and I read Charles Morgan's SPARKENBROKE, we started a decades-long cycle of casting and re-casting it for film. No one seemed to read it anymore, so we debated whether to send our cherished first edition to Sundance Films. (We kept it.)

Books like Sylvia Plath's THE BELL JAR and Amy Tan's JOY LUCK CLUB sucked me in to the point that reality didn't seem quite real, while James Thurber's MY LIFE AND HARD TIMES and Sue Townsend's ADRIAN MOLE'S DIARIES could make me laugh so hard I momentarily couldn't breathe.

For a long time, mysteries were all I wanted to read. A woman I babysat for, the awesome Mrs. Murgle, gave me a box of battered Agatha Christie novels that fueled my addiction to the genre. I've had those books for nearly half a century, and they've been read countless times over the years.

Reading and writing are about as personal as you can get. They are both hard experiences to share (my husband never seems to appreciate it when I read aloud brilliant passages to him), although it is very cozy to pull up a couple of chairs in front of a fireplace, with a handy table nearby, stocked with pots of tea, biscuits and paperbacks. If you should doze off, there's no worry about missing the end of the show. Books will always wait for you. Writing is scary, like taking a shower on a street corner. But how can anyone who loves to read NOT want to write?

I'm grateful that I had parents who kept books around the house - books bought or borrowed from libraries, and many that had been passed down through generations. I'm grateful to the school district that offered typing in summer school, so I could get the words down almost as fast as they tried to escape from my head. I'm grateful to Kerry Huffman Erickson, my first friend who was obsessed with books as much as I was, and to all the teachers who enriched my life. Mr. Crail, fifth grade teacher, read "boy" books like OLD YELLER out loud to us and had us so enthralled we didn't want to leave until he finished the chapter, even after the final bell rang. Mr. Crail also made us recite "The Gettysburg Address" every time we said "yeah" or "ain't."

Mr. Richard Striker, seventh grade English - He couldn't get me to like CATCHER IN THE RYE, but when he gave us a snap essay assignment, I was glad I'd browsed through it enough to remember there was a dog. When you haven't read the book, I figured, be creative - so I wrote an essay about the dog. Mr. Striker, who undoubtedly realized I hadn't read the book, still gave me an A for originality. That encouragement kept me going for years.

Mrs. Vervia Pratt - eight grade and freshman year English - started each day by writing a saying on the blackboard and having us discuss it. One I remember is "Good fences make good neighbors." She introduced me to the war poets and explained PRO PATRIA MORI so clearly it can still make me rage and cry. She forced us to read MY ANTONIA ("The accent is on the A") and surprised us into liking it. Everything she said was defined by her two-fingered "quotes."

And then there was Marjorie Schaller, junior year English, who believed that if something deserved praise it might as well be "Sterling work! Grand and glorious!" There was no boring "Good job!" on her papers, and I strove to receive her colorful flourishes.

Joe Wellman and Judy Sawicki had to deal with high school hormones as well as my tendency to run long, teaching me to write concisely, at least, when the need arose. (They should get extra points for having me and my future husband in the same class. My husband was the trouble-maker who liked to write headlines with sly double-entendres.)

I'm glad my kids were blessed with creative teachers, too. When Keiko Orrall had my son's second grade class act out variations of Tomie de Paola's STONE SOUP, she opened a world of possibilities.  My son was inspired to write both stories and plays after that. And Gene Fisher, Jonathan's third grade teacher, used to joke about going off on tangents. The kids LOVED his tangents! That's how they learned about Annie Oakley, for one thing. And after he played THE SINKING OF THE BISMARK for the class, Jonathan checked out a stack of books about battleships, sunken ships, sunken treasures and the TITANIC. Every tangent was a learning experience.

When my daughter, Jessica, was in third grade, her teacher dubbed her "a walking encyclopedia." That gave her a badly needed burst of confidence. When she struggled a bit years later, I mentioned in a teacher conference that she liked poetry. Her teacher encouraged her to prepare a journal of her favorite poems, which helped her grades and bumped up her enthusiasm for school.

Three events in my life converged this week, taking me on a journey back through my childhood and my school days, when I was just discovering the joys of reading. (I even liked the DICK AND JANE books!) Right-to-Read-Week might seem like a faux holiday, but don't dismiss it lightly. Words are the keystone of our society, and the ability to use them is a key that can open almost any door.

I'm picturing students, chewing on pencils as they think about flowers. I see their teacher, watching them and then writing about students thinking about writing. It gives me hope for the future.