(originally published December 2007)
There’s one person who taught me the skill that has allowed me to achieve everything I have in my life. I thanked him a lot when he was around, but there’s no way it could have been enough, given what I have gotten from it.
The person was my dad, and he taught me how to read.
My father grew up in a big stone house with a cook and a housekeeper and a baseball team of siblings. He attended a Hogwarts-y private school with short pants and striped neckties and was studying to be a priest when his father died unexpectedly. The family was unceremoniously removed from the house, which belonged to his father’s employer, and private school became a luxury they could not afford. They gathered their worldly belongings, got on the biggest ship they’d ever seen, and sailed to America.
The first years were rough. He settled in San Francisco and got a job that paid him exactly the amount of his boardinghouse rent, which included two meals a day, except Sunday. From Saturday night to Monday morning, he went without. His proudest achievements in those early days were losing his accent and passing his citizenship exam.
When I was about three, we started to sit in the early evenings in our wooden garage, me at a second-hand child’s desk and he in a worn kitchen chair, in front of a blackboard and a small easel. He read to me every day after he got home from work and brought me workbooks and alphabet books and chalk. It was my favorite time of day, smelling his aftershave and listening to his voice reading Kipling and Wordsworth and Yeats, along with Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales.
I still remember the day it all came together. There was no warning. One moment, I was a four year old kid, sounding out the letters one at a time, and guessing at the words that the sounds made. And then I saw it: I saw the word. The word as one whole thing, with a life of its own. Its own shape, literally – a unique silhouette made up of letters in a particular order that made that one word and nothing else.
And I saw the next word. And the next.
I read it aloud: “I can color.”
And then, “You can color, too.”
And I turned my first page.
When I started kindergarten that fall, there was no stopping me. I read every book I could. We got a circle of construction paper for every book we read to add to the paper caterpillar with our name on it; I still remember how proud my dad was when he saw how my caterpillar stretched around the corners of the classroom.
My favorite part of Christmas each year was opening the best presents, the books. Sometimes it was Nancy Drew (the numbered volumes appealed to my OCD), sometimes a bestseller, sometimes a classic. I’d go to the room I shared with my seester, plop down on the bed, prop myself up on my elbows, and read the words, gulping shape after shape, until my hands went cold and numb. Then I’d roll over and read some more.
Every day since then, I’ve read something. Each book has left its mark on my politics, my philosophies, my preferences. Stephen King, Raymond Carver, Anne Sexton, James Lee Burke, Andrew Vachss, Maeve Binchy, Shakespeare, Gail Evans, Dean Koontz, Homer, Seth Godin, Tom Peters, James Patterson, John Donne, Michael Crichton, Bill Bryson: they have all influenced me. I’ve made friends with Dave Robicheaux and Alex Delaware, Shylock and Madeline, Jurassic Park dinosaurs and the Man in the Yellow Hat. Books have comforted me when I was scared, kept me company when I was lonely, prevented reckless mistakes and encouraged reckless behavior.
Even though my father has been gone for many years, I remember him every time I learn a new word. That’s a pretty amazing gift, in my book.