For David and Rachel, Christmas 2011
Can a book change your life? I think so, and I’ll tell you why.
When I was very young, just about once a week my mother and I– and eventually my baby brother Bill– would take the bus to Hempstead to visit her sisters at my grandparents’ old house. My sister Patty wasn’t born yet, and my grandparents were dead by that time. I never actually knew them, but I heard a lot about them, and I certainly knew their house well.
My grandparents’ house was an old farmhouse that grew big. My grandfather bought it about the time of the First World War and added rooms as his family grew to six children. When we visited, my mother would settle in with my baby brother and her sisters and some of my cousins at the huge table in the family dining room. They would drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, but mostly they talked until evening approached. Then my mother and my aunts would get together in the kitchen to make dinner for my uncles and my dad, and my Aunt Mary who worked, when they came home from the city.
While my mother and my aunts were hanging out, I would explore and find places to play in the big old house. The basement seemed spooky and I never went there, but the attic was fascinating to explore. It wasn’t easy to get in- you had to go into one of my aunt’s bedrooms and open what looked like a closet door. Inside was a stairway that led to the attic- the third floor of the big old house.
The stairway was open at the top and there was no guardrail around the edge where it opened into the attic. You could fall back into my aunt’s room if you weren’t paying attention. It’s funny to think that I found the basement to be spooky, when really the attic was the dangerous place. But my mother knew that stairway very well, of course, and I guess she trusted me to be careful.
There were windows in the attic, so there was light in the daytime, and there might have been a light bulb or two, but I don’t remember for sure. What I do remember is that the attic was full of stuff. Stuff, stuff, and more stuff. I guess most of it was left over from when my mother and her brothers and sisters were kids. There were boxes and more boxes and shelves and more shelves, and a bookcase or two.
I think you know me well enough to guess that the bookshelves intrigued me the most. I don’t remember how many times I looked through those bookshelves, but one of them was the day I found the book that changed my life.
The book was very plain, dull orange in color, but had a title that intrigued me: The Read-Aloud Book. I was in fourth grade at the time, sort of on the borderline between kids’ books and more challenging ones, so I opened it to see what was inside. The cover was half torn-off, so I was very careful; I’d been taught long ago to respect books. (Though not in time to keep me from coloring in the black-and-white illustrations in one of my father’s. We won’t go into that now.)
I was surprised to find pages and pages of text with no pictures at all. Then I realized that was the whole point: this was a book of stories to read out loud. I chose a page at random and started reading. I still do that often. Susan reads books straight through, from the preface to the appendix– that’s one of many ways we are different.
I finished one story and went on to another and another. They ran a wide range, from fairy tales, to the legends of the Middle Ages, to the sagas of Norse gods and goddesses. At least half of the book was taken up with tales from Greek mythology. That was where I started reading and where I kept reading. I read one story after another until my mother called me downstairs. I took the book with me, and said, “I’m not finished with this!”
My Aunt Mary, or maybe it was my Aunt Fran, said, “Helen, let him take the book home.”
In the next few days I read and read and read some more. I read about Perseus and the magic sandals that allowed him to fly. I read about the way he killed the Gorgon who could turn a man to stone with her glance.
I read about Theseus and the way he took care of the robber who kicked people off a cliff, and the evil host who invited guests to sleep in his bed, cutting their limbs or stretching their joints if they didn’t fit. I read about the way he killed the Minotaur, too- the half-man half-bull who lived in a maze, and how on the way home from Crete Theseus accidentally cost his own father’s life through carelessness. That bothered me then and I still don’t like reading that part now.
Hercules was the strongest of them all. That made him my favorite for a while, just like Superman was my favorite superhero. He was strong enough to hold up the whole earth, and smart enough to trick Atlas into taking it back. He killed the world’s most ferocious lion and the fiercest wild boar. (I had never imagined pigs might be dangerous until then.) I really loved the way he diverted a whole river to clean the world’s messiest stable, and the part where he persuaded the Amazon queen to take off her girdle cracked me up until my father explained that the word meant something different in the Very Old Days.
I remember that on that afternoon when my mom called me downstairs, I was reading about Hector and Achilles fighting outside the walls of Troy. I told my mother and father about that part in the car on the way home. My father gently corrected me: “It’s not a – chiles, but a- killies.”
When Susan and I visited the ruins of Troy many years later, I knew much more about the story than proper pronunciation, but the book in the attic was one of the first things I thought about as I walked around the city walls and imagined Hector and A-Chiles fighting to the death.