Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.
~James Russell Lowell
Mother slipped into my bedroom on the night of my sixth birthday, hands behind her back. “I have one more present for you,” she said. “One I wanted to save until now.”
Another present? But I’d already gotten roller skates and a paint set and a shiny yellow rain slicker. Not to mention chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
“Close your eyes and hold out your hands.” I did. And in them she placed a brand-new hardcover book. A picture of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a pig graced the cover. “It’s Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White,” Mother said. “The perfect story for a six-year-old.”
I opened the book to page one. But since I was only in first grade, and since school had only just started, I didn’t know most of the words.
“It might be too hard for you to read by yourself right now,” Mother said. “But I thought I’d read a chapter to you every night if you want me to.” I nodded. And so she began the timeless story of Fern and Wilbur and the spider that loved them with the magical first sentence I’ll never forget: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
Mother wasn’t exactly true to her word. She didn’t read me a chapter of Charlotte’s Web every night. Sometimes she read three or four. In less than a week, we reached the final pages, sobbing together as she read the part where Charlotte dies. We sighed wistfully as the dear spider’s children sailed away from Zuckerman’s farm on their silk balloons and the book ended with the magical sentences I’ll never forget: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
That’s when I fell in love with reading.
More books followed. The Bobbsey Twins, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. As time passed and my reading skills improved, Mother and I took turns reading chapters aloud, snuggled together — as we had been from the beginning — in the sagging oversized armchair in the corner of my bedroom.
Those golden times didn’t last, of course. By the time I was old enough for Nancy Drew and The Black Stallion and Judy Blume books, I was a proficient reader, teetering on the brink of adolescence. My snuggle-up-and-read time with Mother came to an end.
But our shared love of books didn’t.
When I read To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye and The Grapes of Wrath in high school, Mother did, too, so that we could talk about them. My letters and phone calls home from college began, “Let me tell you what I’m reading.”
So it was no surprise when, just hours after the birth of my first child, Mother slipped into my hospital room with her hands behind her back. “I have a present for Meg,” she said. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
I did. And in them she placed a well-worn hardcover book with a picture of a little girl, her arms wrapped around a pig, gracing the cover.
I didn’t read it to Meg right away, of course. In fact, I waited until bedtime on her sixth birthday, after we had finished the chocolate cake with chocolate icing. She snuggled up next to me in the sagging oversized armchair that now sat in the corner of her bedroom as I opened Charlotte’s Web to page one.
And then I read the magical first sentence aloud to her: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”