Reading Aloud


Published:

It's not about books, really. The worn pages, colorful illustrations and printed words are important, but confined to the role of catalyst. It's really about human touch.

Reading to my children before bedtime is a way to facilitate that touch, and this subtle contact sparks a thousand memories.

Every evening my grandmother's loveseat beckons. Clean dishes drip dry in the rack, lunches are packed. Lamps are turned a notch lower. A candle burns, floating the scent of ginger peach through the room.

"Heyyyy, dooooon't!" My daughter's voice shatters the peace and quiet (perhaps the neighbor's, as well).

My son throws up his hands. "What! I didn't DO anything! What did I do? I was just SITTING here!"

When I first became a mother, I relished the clearly defined actions of feeding, changing diapers, and cuddling. How could I possibly know that this straightforward job description would evolve into the vague roles of nurturer, dictator and mediator? It's like rehearsing years for the ballet - only to get on stage and discover the music is disco. And tomorrow night it will be hip-hop. And you know what? Rehearsal is a waste of time, because it's all about improvisation anyway.

Illustration: Scott Thigpen

"You picked last time!"

"We always read what you want!"

My son leaps from the couch and stands on his head, falling over and thumping to the floor. The candle flame bends and wanes as though chuckling at the absence of soft music and fine food. For a moment I consider skipping the story and rolling out a thick layer of guilt-the one aspect of motherhood I seem to have mastered.

Instead, I open the book. My finger brushes the crude letters of my name, printed decades earlier ("That's your writing, Mom? No way!") before turning the page.

He was a good little monkey and always very curious. Everything changes when they hear my reading voice. My son, just old enough to stiffen at public displays of affection, lets his lanky body melt into mine; his breathing becomes slow and even.

Younger and more open to my touch is my daughter, who rests one hand on my knee, and, with the other, whisks back hair from her flawless skin with four fingers now slimmed in the dramatic transition from baby to child.

While my voice flows and the pages turn, there is serenity. And in that calm, images permeate the corners of my brain not preoccupied with thoughts of perpetually unfolded laundry, unpaid bills and groceries still at the market rather than in my refrigerator.

I am speaking the words, but hearing my father's voice as he reads to me. I feel my children's cotton pajamas and smell the strawberry shampoo in their damp hair. But I am recalling the tattered blanket between my own fingertips and the simultaneous desire to suck my two middle fingers until they become wrinkled and pink as newborn mice.

When Curious George the monkey became tangled in massive amounts of spaghetti or painted a jungle scene in an old woman's apartment, my father adopted an overly dramatic tone. ("Will you look at that mess!") But my sister and I welcomed his corny sense of theater. It never surprised us. And with predictability came comfort.

Of course, George was … "Curious!" we said together. My father left blank the ends of the same sentences. He read the same books, because we chose them over and over. He asked the same questions.

Secretly, I guarded against questions that required higher-level thinking. I became exasperated when my younger sister interrogated him and broke the story's rhythm. I didn't want to listen to her. I didn't want to think. I just wanted to feel.

Only when I am pulled back to my childhood one scene at a time do I understand the bickering between my kids. The attention and proximity were so fulfilling that my sister and I wanted them all to ourselves. This closeness, I now realize, is a parent's simplest and most cherished gift.

So I read to them, not because I was a teacher and am a writer and have a passion for books. I read aloud to keep my two children-whose long and heavy bodies I once cradled, but cannot lift anymore-close to me for a few minutes each day.

With passing years, my daughter leaves George on the shelf in favor of novellas about spunky girl detectives. But she still wants me to read to her each night. I relish it because I know it won't last.

My son, lurching into pre-adolescence, wants whatever my daughter and I don't, prefers to read by himself. Offers to read aloud to him are met with "No, thanks" and a scowl.

Once in a while he acquiesces. And when he does, that serenity blossoms and hovers between us, and again I realize that the most effective way to communicate with my children is often through the pages of a book. Forget the brain. Reading aloud in our house is all about the most basic human need: touch.

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