Creating Lasting Connections
|I have always loved the smell of books—the dusty, slightly mildewy smell of millions of delicately turned pages bound together. When I smell this musty scent in a college library, upscale bookstore, or even the tiny church library that boasts maybe 30 books, I am immediately transported back to the library of my childhood in Murray, Utah. As I reminisce about the days of my youth, I think about what made that old library so special. Perhaps it was the ability to dive into other worlds, a silent game of hide-and-seek with my big sister, or the loving memories I shared with my mother that made reading together memorable.
That tiny library building was a wonderland akin to a magic tree house where I could be transported to any place in the world. When I was young, I walked through the doors and immediately the melancholy aroma of dusty pages filled my nostrils. Señor Horton, the high school Spanish teacher, who worked part time at the checkout desk, would greet me. “Hello, golden braids,” he would say, his big belly pulling his short-sleeved dress shirt tightly across his midsection; I think he always wore a shirt size too small. If someone would have bet me, I would have wagered that one day one of those buttons would have popped right off.
In memory, I am 8 years old. I skip to the children’s section that is brimming full of exciting adventures, tender memories, and childhood fantasies. I immediately begin looking for my favorite getaways. I excitedly search the shelves for my favorite Frances books, pull out a pale blue storybook, and jump into the world of Russell and Lillian Hoban. I am no longer reading the story, but have become the character. I eat only what I feel like: bread and jam for every meal. I outsmart a friend who tries to sucker me out of the tea set I have been saving my allowance for—not just any tea set—a real china tea set with pictures all in blue. As Frances, I purchase the shiny new tea set with my own money, wearing a pair of smarty-pants britches on top of a boatload of confidence. I also learn that sometimes friendships require me to set boundaries. I can’t be outsmarted or made a pushover. I may have read the book on my own, but I hear my mother’s voice in my head, reciting this beloved tale—what a sweet memory.
Next, I hear the Mother’s suspenseful voice as she tells me a beloved tale of running away from home and having my own home in the intrigue of a forest in an abandoned boxcar. I make a cozy home for myself, my brothers, and sister. I am the oldest sister in the story. My own maternal instincts kick in—caring, organizing, and nurturing come easily. I love making stew, cooking eggs, or picking wild blackberries. I love being in charge and seeing to it that everything is neat, organized, and tidy in my house. Taking care of a sick child makes my heart grow bigger. Going to the dump and finding treasures that people have thrown away—cleaning them up and making them new and sparkling—feels adventurous and challenging.
Something about visiting the library in the rain is especially nostalgic.The puddles of water we drove through seemed to splash up high enough the reach the windows. Sharp lightning pierced through a sea of dark, making the gray clouds strikingly beautiful. Rainstorms remind me of a local bakery. Often, after we visited the library, we would stop at a local Hostess bakery and pick out a favorite treat from hundreds of snack cakes arranged neatly in rows. My favorite was a package of two bright orange cupcakes with a white squiggle etched across the top. It was delightful to taste the smooth, waxy coating and feel the cream filling explode inside my mouth. Sometimes Mother read aloud one of our new library books in the car while we ate our snack cakes. It was especially fun in the rain. During story time, my cupcakes were twice as sweet.
The love of children’s literature and the blessed closeness of those precious times I had with my mother made such a strong impact on my life that when my two daughters reached an age of comprehension, I ensured they were given the opportunity to drink deep of the delights of reading. I knew the mother/daughter reading connection was special, but I never imagined the depth of connection we would feel together as I opened my daughters’ understanding to this joyful treasure trove that I felt as a child.
Connection came in many different forms with my children. I felt it when we were creators, playing music or painting a work of art; scientists, exploring and observing our fascinating world and the beauty of nature; or readers, discovering and imagining new people, places, and adventures. As soon as my girls were old enough, we would make a trek to the local library and attend a story hour for babies, ages eighteen months and older. We sang songs—lots of songs. Elizabeth would take a brightly colored scarf and lift it up and down to the rhythm of the poetry sung. She would contort her hand into the shape of an alligator jaw, swaying it back and forth to the pulse of the words “Skidamarink a dink a dink, Skidamarink a doo, I love you.” Lizzie (one of the hundreds of nicknames I have for Elizabeth) would smile and sometimes giggle. She had begun to learn the joy of words through music.
When Kate was about four weeks old, I would show her books with bold, black and white patterns so she would learn to focus her eyes on a page. At three months, we graduated to books with texture and bright colors. When she turned six months old, I checked out books with a variety of distinct sounds: animals, automobiles, and words with a steady, rhythmic beat. Kit Kat (one of the myriads of Kate’s endearing names) would point to the pictures on the page, asking me to say over and over the words “ZOOM,” “CRASH,” and “MEOW.” She would intently watch my lips as I recited the words over and over again. Sound books progressed to simple stories, lots of nursery rhymes, and cheery narratives. Her ability to listen to and comprehend language expanded, and at ten months she was speaking in full sentences. She loved language. We went to the library every week and checked out a stack of books that filled her stroller, and she would sit atop the stack, as if she had reached a mountain peak. My daughter grew to love the written word, and the bond for a love of literature formed between us. We would sit in a rocking chair together and she would often rub my arm, stroke my hair, or put her hand tenderly on my breast as we read. I can still picture her soft, chubby arm and finger, pointing decidedly to a favorite story and hearing one of the first phrases she ever uttered: “Read it!” I can see her determined, little three-year-old self-confidently marching up to the computer at the library and “typing.” The intuitive, seasoned librarian, who knew us well, came over and wisely asked with an amused smile, “Can I help you find something?” Katrina cleverly and confidently replied, “Yes. I am looking for a book about a mouse.” Remembering this, my heart aches in delight so much it hurts. How proud I am of the tenacity of this sassy 3-year-old, already knowing how to find and get what she needs at the library. So smart!
My younger daughter Lizard is ten now and still anticipates our nightly bedtime stories. She is mainly a visual learner and until this past year has always preferred books with pictures, but she has gradually learned to be able to draw the pictures in her mind with spoken dialogue. For example, one recent night in our reading, we were transported to the big woods of Wisconsin, and through the magic of the words my daughter became the character Laura in Little House in the Big Woods and learned what it would be like to live in a log cabin. In the story, Lizzie (as Laura) helped her mother every day with chores. She gathered wood chips—from the chopping block—for the fire. She felt what it would be like to have cousins visit for Christmas and all would snuggle up cozily in a trundle bed, listening to a singing violin as they drifted off to sleep. Laura was the only child to receive a gift, other than a pair of mittens, and she embraced a new rag doll in delight. Each of the children tasted the only candy they received in their stockings—a stick of peppermint—and they were tickled with pleasure. It is delightful to watch Lizzie experience childhood delights through reading. Reading together has created a strong bond between us; my daughter feels safe, warm, and loved. She often asks me to lie down next to her as she falls asleep. Sometimes I sing to her. Other times I hold her. Many other nights I tell her how beautiful, smart, kind, and extraordinary she is.
When I see toddlers and preschoolers with glazed eyes fixed on a phone or tablet screen, my heart deflates. I think of the wonderful memories I share with my loves and see the world that has been opened to them because they love to read. I feel their delight as I see shy smiles wash over their faces or hear a muffled squeal of excitement as they become entranced in another world of literature. I hear a happy, airy whistle coming from the corner of the room, which means my oldest is enjoying a lighter story. I see both of my girls understand their school work, their comprehension levels off the charts compared to those of other children their age. Is it any surprise that my older daughter’s choice of an elective in ninth grade is Advanced Latin? How I wish this delight could be opened to all children.
Some may argue that the time for reading to children is past, as there are so many well recorded audio books for kids, computer games, apps on phones and tablets that dazzle and stimulate, and other educational pursuits that do not require a busy parent’s time. Although it may be tempting to buy into these alternate activities, if we do not create the time to read with our children, we will miss the blessed memories and the tender bond of connection that is shared through the delight of reading together. In the stress and busyness of modern life, reading often takes a back seat to other activities and pressures. Being a single mother, I know how exhausting life is, and bedtime stories can seem like yet another to-do item on an endless task list. Every single day, we seem to run to the brink of exhaustion, and at its close, all we want for our kids is to see that their homework is done and they are blissfully sleeping. But how much we miss if we forget the bedtime story. How much we both miss if it is skipped for a night that turns into days that turn into years.