When I was six, my family was driving on a highway late at night. Streaks of headlights and taillights painted the dark. For the first time, I realized that each car held people living lives as important to them as mine was to me.I wanted to know what those lives were, and to share my own..
Do you remember when you learned to read? That transformative moment when what had been beyond your comprehension suddenly wasn’t? I do.
The year I was four, my parents were building our house. They didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so they had opted to have their simple ranch-style home constructed more or less as a shell, to save the expenses of having the interior done, as well.
I remember that one of my treasured toys was a hammer small enough for me to use, but just like my dad’s. The grip was blue, and so, eventually, was our house, which might have something to do with my later deep affinity for the color. I played with nails, and the little caps that go on the end of electrical wires, and the neighbor’s little beagle mix, Shrimp, with whom I was friends, and the huge piles of excavated clay on either side of the house. I found out that I could just fit in the cabinet that eventually ended up over the refrigerator, and I saw considerably more of the construction process than my older brother and sister, who were in school during many of those days.
At one point, my dad took a large (to me, at the time) box, lined it with carpet padding, and gave it to me for a den to take my naps and look at my few books. I don’t remember all of them, but I know I had a Little Golden Book that discussed how babies are born (it being 1974, I’m reasonably sure it didn’t talk about how they were made, though), and another that had mirror writing in it.
The birth book was invaluable to me, because, three weeks after I turned five at the end of that July, I was a big sister. It may have been my introduction to the world of reading for research and understanding.
The mirror writing book fascinated me for very different reasons. At that point, I had never heard of Leonardo da Vinci, and I didn’t understand that being extremely left-handed meant that I was likelier to have a certain affinity for reading and writing backwards (as an adult, I’ve been known to do both without needing to break a sweat).
I don’t remember what that book was about – but I remember that the mirror writing was a secret message, and I was intended to ask my parents for help in reading it.
I was four. If you’ve known any four year olds, you’re probably familiar with their desire for repetition. I wanted that story read, as my own daughter would later say, when she herself was four, “Again again again again AGAIN!” I wanted Mommy or Funny Father (I called my dad that for several of my early years) to hold that book up to the mirror for me, over and over, and make those intriguingly mysterious letters perform the magic of transformation…
Only, my parents were busy. They were desperately trying to finish our home to the point where it would be livable for a family of six, with a baby about to be born, and their oldest child still under ten. We live in the Northeast, and, even though it was spring, I’m sure they felt the pressure of a winter that would come, inexorably. They simply weren’t available to read to me the way I wanted them to be.
I vividly remember the day I decided to do something about it. I was restlessly flipping through my books, wanting to see that magical message, and my parents were busy in what would become the kitchen. I was alone, in the ‘living room’, and left to entertain myself.
I decided not to wait for someone to read to me. I made a conscious decision, right then, to learn to read for myself. I knew my letters; I had an idea about the sounds at least some of them made (born in 1969, I’m only a few weeks older than Sesame Street, which was almost undoubtedly helpful in that regard). So I sat there, staring at the books and sounding out the words, letter by letter. I remember the sense of victory I had each time I could make a word emerge from those letters on the page. Even without the mirror writing, that was pure magic – and a heady new power!
And when I was finally ready to hold that book up to the mirror?
I felt godlike. I felt like a grownup. I had the same mysterious talent as my parents!
I. COULD. READ!
I could make words happen, from simple marks on the paper!
I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over the heady bliss of those first moments, and I know that’s a part of what draws me back, (again again again again AGAIN!) to those marks on the paper or the screen, and the wonder of the way they capture the lightning of thoughts, information, imagery….
So simple. So potent. Such ability to transform each of us….
How about you? Do you remember the moment when you really GOT reading? Your first books, and why you loved them? I’ll supply a fresh round of beverages if you supply some conversation!
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