N.Y. — For 12 years we read together.
From her very first days until early adolescence imposed a painful intermission, we enjoyed a nightly ritual of storytelling that imprinted us both in ways we are only just now beginning to understand and appreciate.
In the beginning, Elizabeth lay across my lap more intent on sucking the book in my hands than on the words she was hearing, but gradually she began to listen and even to repeat the tales back to me from memory. And then, miraculously, she cracked the code and became a reader herself, sounding out words as she sat on my lap, appropriating a whole new language, a whole new life. She still enjoyed being read to, but increasingly we began to alternate, first sentences, then pages, then chapters, our story hour a shared enterprise of reading and listening, giving and receiving.
By the time she reached fifth grade, Elizabeth was competing with her classmates to see who could read the most. Armed with lists of children's classics, she brought two or three new titles home every week and together, sitting cross-legged on her bed, we read them aloud. For her it was a time of great enchantment, her first encounter with the likes of "Charlotte's Web," "The Secret Garden," "Sarah, Plain and Tall." For me it was an opportunity to revisit the precincts of childhood fantasy in the company of my daughter.
I had begun by then to write my own stories, increasingly, as Elizabeth's voice seeped into my consciousness, in a language intended for her. The first of these I had read to her, but the year of her great book immersion I put a new story in her hands and asked her to read it to me. I had revised the tale so often I knew it by heart but in all that time I had never heard it recited in the voice of my narrator, a child my daughter's age.
That night, in the same small voice that had given me back Louisa May Alcott and A.A. Milne, I heard my own words as if for the first time and understood viscerally what it means for a work to come to life, for ideas and images to clothe themselves in the raiment of a child's imagination.
By a fortunate confluence of events, I was privileged to glimpse my audience and my narrator in the same person, my daughter. She read my story as she had so many others that year, forgetting by the second paragraph that her father had written the words. To her it was just another tale, another road to travel, another life to live. That she wanted to walk that road and inhabit that life was all the reward I could ever hope to reap from my words.
Middle school changed all that. Carried along by the continental drift of her peers, she read less and less. Our nightly ritual came slowly to an end, elbowed out by the increasing demands of homework and the rising appeal of telephone calls and online chat rooms, fashion magazines and television. Literature couldn't compete with the more visceral delights of pop culture. And fathers had no place in that exciting world.
Two years passed, difficult years of emotional sparring, of a first-born child bridling at parental constraints, demanding new freedoms, resistant to reason. But the bond we had forged during all those years of story-telling held and suddenly, to my astonishment, we were reading again, facing each other now in chairs flanking the fireplace, trading scenes from Shakespeare, chapters of American history, abstruse scientific and mathematical concepts.
Elizabeth said reading aloud helped her to focus, to better understand and retain what she was required to learn. During a period when she had all but disappeared from view, thickly armored against importuning parents, I welcomed this sudden access, grateful for any opportunity to enlarge the domain of our shared experience.
Though our nightly reading ritual is long passed, still the golden thread spun during those miracle-filled nights has not been broken. It binds us tightly despite her need for independence, providing an invaluable legacy of stories shared, voices entwined, a legacy that lies waiting to ensnare her own children in the same wonderful web of words when their time for enchantment comes.
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