Charlotte’s delightful podcast made me think about bedtime reading.
When I was in my 20s and my sister in her 30s someone once asked us what was the best thing about the way our Ma brought us up as children.
We both separately said “reading to us”, and they looked at us a little oddly. How could something that obviously stopped when we were six or seven be the best possible thing?
But she didn’t stop. She read us Beatrix Potter and Pooh and Wind in the Willows when we were smidgeons. She read us Kipling and Elizabeth Gouge when we were older. Then she read us Trollope and Austin and Dickens and Gaskell when we were teenagers. We caught the habit. My big sister read me Daddy Long-legs and T.Tembarom when my Ma had to pause draw breath and both my sisters took turns reading me The Lord of the Rings, or the first few chapters, at least.
My Ma read to me regularly until I was eighteen or so and left home. I have clear memories of sewing a seam and listening to the sarcasm of Mr Collins, to Emma Wodehouse’s silly mistakes, to Lydia Bennet’s folly, and to the smooth machinations of the Reverend Snape and Mrs Proudie.
I’ve been trying to work out what this gave me; evening upon evening of listening to second-order 19th and early 20th century fiction. Well, the Jane Austin isn’t second order fiction, but Angela Thirkle certainly is. Now that I list it I can see how neurotically small-c conservative my Ma’s taste in fiction actually was. Mind you, I am not sure that mine is any better, merely more modern. So little of it was Capital-L Literature that I still tend to slush around with low-brow and middling stuff and avoid the pure oxygen of the high-brow. I am still slightly nervous about Literatature. Am I Grown Up enough for it?
However, the true gift given was self-confidence. I was worth spending time with. Whole novels-worth of time. I don’t remember that we discussed the books very much. I think I provided monosylables in reply to “are you enjoying it?” and occasionally commanded her to “go on!”. But we spent a lot of time together, my Ma and I.
I also learned to listen, to be in an audience. I learned to hear the words that are spoken, and this has made it easier to hear what isn’t said, to hear the silences between the words. Mind you, if somone had told my Ma this when I was a teenager she’d have laughed out loud. I listened to other people no more than any teenager ever does, so the gift was subtle and long-lasting.
It gave me an ear for a well-turned phrase and an understanding that the test of a good sentence is how well it reads out loud. I can write with a troubling fluency, and I suspect that came from listening to educated English being read.
However, I think the most powerful thing that these evenings gave me was a sense of my family. Imagine, if you will, three girls swooning simultaneously over Strider in the inn in Bree. I had a moment of shivering self-awareness at the time, that this solid, firm, loving, shared, sisterly security was precious and rare and to be remembered. Then, many years later when my Ma was old and infirm and frail, I would visit her and occasionally I’d read to her. One day, when I was reading one of the old familiar stories, I realised that I was echoing the rhythms and cadences of her own voice from more than thirty years before, and in another moment of shivering awareness, I realised that these were the rhythms of my grandfather’s voice, reading to her as a tiny girl some forty years earlier again. So one of the gifts she gave me was to hear an echo of my grandfather, who died before my memories began.
Reading out loud while someone sews or draws or paints is such a simple way to share time and space with them. It combats the encroachment of television and games and the internet into all our minds. It gives a space where love and silence and sharing may grow. And enjoying the jokes and joys of a story with someone is a quietly intimate pleasure.