My father was the one to read Alice in Wonderland out loud to us on the big stuffed chair, my brother and I saddle-bagged on either side of him. But it was my mother, Alice, who took us to the library. Long before I could read, she brought me there each week to borrow a tiny Beatrix Potter book, even though I, like Peter Rabbit, had a tendency to break the rules between these trips.
She still loves books. I’ve watched, boggled, as she reads without the benefit of a short term memory. And yet she does it, daily. Even as her mind loses ground, trips to the library still bring out her curiosity, her reverence for books, and her best inside voice.
Over the past few years, I have taken her to poetry readings and author talks with mixed results. She fussed in her seat as the brilliant Alastair MacLeod, spoke and then read from one of his stories until she used her worst outside voice to say, “My God! He’s very long winded!” That day, I learned to follow the rule of aisle seats and exiting at first sign of trouble. But other times the stars lined up and she was transported by the words. On those days, she loved standing in line to get her book signed, unaware of the family rule I’d broken, buying the book instead of borrowing it from the library.
On quiet afternoons at our house you could hear my mother reading out loud to herself, her intuitive effort to bring the information in by another channel, to make it stick. Witnessing this led me to revive the family bedtime story, a ritual that improved her sleeping and that helped me find our common ground. We started with Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty. The first night, she checked in about the voice. “Horses can’t write, can they?” She listened with the rapt wide-eyed attention of a child, moaning when any creature large or small was harmed. When Black Beauty struggled to be well behaved, Alice whispered to her stuffed bear, “It’s hard to be good, isn’t it?”