Dad, me, and a love of reading
He shopped for them on his lunch break, and brought them home to expand my horizons.
I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, and every morning, sometimes before I woke up, my dad left for work at his office in Boston.
I didn’t know much about what my dad actually did all day. He wore a suit, worked for “the phone company” — which changed names a half-dozen times in the 30 or so years he was there — and did something called marketing. My interest in my parents’ work was limited. Now that I have my own children, I realize that kids only ever know a sliver of who their parents really are. What they care about most is who their parents are in relation to them.
Observing life through this self-interested lens, one thing I did know about my dad’s day was that he often spent his lunch break looking for books for me. He knew that I loved to read and would often come home in the evening with a book or two for me tucked into his brown leather briefcase. I would accost him as he came in the door, not to ask him how his 12-hour day supporting us had gone, but with the well-known kid refrain, “Did you bring me anything?”
Sometimes Dad would give me the book right away, and other times he’d tuck it up on the high shelf in the hall closet for later. If he handed it over, I immediately investigated its cover, checked out the description on the back, and sometimes started reading right then. If he placed the book in the closet, I jumped and leapt around even though I had zero chance of ever reaching that shelf, which seemed 20 feet high.
I was not always as appreciative of those books as I should have been, especially in my younger years. One time, Dad brought home a paperback called Bunya the Witch. I scanned the cover quickly before declaring, “Ugh! It’s just another stupid farm book,” and dropping it on the ground.
I was rightfully reprimanded for being an ungrateful brat, and I learned that valuable lesson about not judging a book by its cover — Bunya turned out to be one of my all-time favorites.
As I got older, my dad favored Newbery Medal and Honor books, often focused on strong young female characters, like Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs, Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt, and Homesick: My Own Story by Jean Fritz, books I remember to this day.
It’s not just the books themselves that stay in my memory. It’s the girl reading them, and what she felt as she read. I think back to hours spent in my childhood bedroom, lying on the pink flower-patterned Laura Ashley comforter — also brought home by my dad from Boston — both windows open to the night air, reading about young women who faced lives much more difficult than mine. I learned from their courage and drew inspiration from their bravery. I pondered what I might have done if I had been them – would I have been so brave? I also wondered about what my life would be like when I grew up and what adventures I might have.
All this because my dad, rather than working through his lunch break or going out with co-workers, took his free half-hour some days to buy books for his little girl. To put aside the stresses of adult life to browse through shelves thinking about what I might like to read, and to consider, too, what might be good for me to read, what might, as he liked to say, expand my horizons.
To this day, I love to read. I love the excitement of opening up a new book and getting lost in whatever story the author wants to tell me. And quite often, when I’ve read something really wonderful, the first person I pass it along to is my dad. I figure I owe him.