It’s April 23.
Today is the UNESCO International Day of the Book, and World Book Night. As I write this, volunteers in Europe and the U.S. are distributing parcels of carefully selected books to non-readers in their communities, hoping to ignite a love of reading. Today is also Shakespeare’s birthday, and my grandmother’s birthday. If my grandmother had not passed away on the first Friday night in March, she would have turned 95 this year.
In honor of all the Book Givers out there, here’s the story of how my grandmother gave me one of the greatest gifts I ever received.
Summer, 1993: I am eight years old and summer is bliss. My days are spent at my grandmother’s house, playing with dolls under the shade of the tall oak in her back yard. I arrange My Little Ponies along the porch’s wide red banister or in her pots of tiny pink flowers with paper-thin petals.
Mum makes tuna fish or fried egg sandwiches. We eat together at the glass patio table on the porch. She serves me chocolate milk and sometimes even allows me to squeeze the chocolate syrup from the bottle into the cold white milk. I can never tell how much I serve myself, but I am rarely disappointed.
After lunch, she encourages me to play outside while she goes to the den to watch her program, Days of Our Lives, which my mother has forbidden me from watching. I play alone for five minutes before I wander into the house and press myself against my grandmother’s soft side.
These days, to me, are heaven.
I don’t nap when Mum suggests I lie down upstairs in the big bed in one of her extra bedrooms. I search the house for skeleton keys. I dress myself in my grandmothers scarves and examine her make-up brushes and many bottles of perfume. Adorned in her accessories, I flip through old photo albums, studying the snapshots of family members long gone.
Some of the people are old, but most are young, kids my age. I know they died in a fire, a fire that changed my family. I don’t yet understand the depth of loss or how their sudden passing fit in the longer narrative of our family. But at night, after my grandmother tucks me into bed and we say our prayers together, all I can see when I close my lives are the pictures of my deceased relatives.
I can’t stop thinking of the part of the prayer, If I die before I wake… and I run to my grandmother’s bed, scared of sleep and night and the possibility that I won’t wake up in the morning. Against the steady rhythm of her breath and the coolness of her silky summer nightgown, I can rest.
This is the summer she discovers I don’t like to read.
“A book will be your best friend,” she tells me. “If you have a book, you’ll never feel alone.”
I am sure what she says is true, because she always carries a book with her when she leaves the house. We go to the library and she browses the hardcover novels. I wander the stacks. I twirl the displays of worn paperbacks with elaborate covers showing men rescuing beautiful women.
Books are intriguing until I have to open them.
During the school year, I quietly endure library time by studying the covers of Nancy Drew novels and pretending to read. When I look through the pages, I can pick out words I know, but they don’t make sense when I try to put them together. My teacher scolds me, the girls in my class bully me, and I hate going to school.
These problems are completely avoided in summer. Instead: I play wiffleball and hide-and-seek tag in my grandmother’s neighborhood. I chase the spray of water that fans back and forth from the sprinkler on her front lawn. When Mum drives me to the bookstore, insisting that we find a book for me to read, I am skeptical. I assume we won’t find anything, and I can go back to playing games.
In the children’s section, which is much brighter and more colorful than the parts of the store for grown-ups, Mum browses the shelves of chapter books for me. I resign myself to the picture books I loved in Kindergarten: The Jolly Postman and Strega Nona. Feeling hazy after imagining worlds so different from my own, I am ready to go home, and I tug at my grandmother’s hand.
“Why don’t you read this?” she asks, extending a copy of The Boxcar Children to me.
“Well, I’ll get it,” she offers. “And maybe you’ll like it.”
Even though it has boys on the cover, I start reading in the car. And I don’t put it down that afternoon. And we eat dinner together, and I read some more before we pray. And in the morning I keep reading. And in a week I finish the book and ask my grandmother if we can go back to the store so I can get the next one. And she takes me. And we spend the rest of the summer reading together.
When Fall comes, my family moves into my grandmother’s house. The room with the big bed is rearranged so my brother and I can share it together. School is still scary, but with a book, I can escape. Sometimes I try to read when I know I’m not supposed to, and the teacher crouches by my desk to tell me to please put the book away.
As I dog-ear my page, she tells me, “You know, you can write your own stories too. You’re a powerful writer.”
I can’t remember a teacher ever telling me anything nice before, and I ask, “Really?”
She nods and says, “Maybe you will be a writer someday.”