Every evening before her sons’ bedtime, my mother read to us. She also read to us while nursing my youngest brother of the moment. Even after I was ‘too old’, grade 7 or so, I always managed to be within earshot.
Rudyard Kipling, C.S. Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kenneth Grahame, Louisa May Alcott: She read vividly, avoiding questions until ‘later’.
Her ‘later’ answers often took unraveling. When I read the books aloud in the 1980s and 1990s, I understood why.
When my sons were quite young, on a phone call, I asked how she’d chosen the books she read us. In classic Mother style, she answered immediately: ‘I read you what I wanted to read.’ As with her ‘later’ answers, this one took some thinking.
Twenty-five years ago this week, as she lay dying, she asked my brothers and me to read her the Chronicles of Narnia. Her 90th birthday is tomorrow, July 25.
When I read the paragraph below, written by and about a man roughly her age, I understood her reading as I never had before.
And he reads to them, as he does every night, as if watering them, as if turning the earth at their feet…. What is the real meaning of the stories, he wonders, of creatures that no longer exist even in the imagination: princes, woodcutters, honest fishermen who live in hovels. He wants his children to have an old life and a new life, a life that is indivisible from all times past, that grows from them, exceeds them, and another that is original, pure, free, that is beyond the prejudice which protects us, the habit which gives us shape. He wants them to know both degradation and sainthood, the one with humiliation, the other without ignorance. He is preparing them for this voyage. It is as if there is only a single hour, and in that hour all the provender must be gathered, all the advice offered. He longs for the one line to give them that they will always remember, that will embrace everything, that will point the way, but he cannot find the line, he cannot recognise it. It is more precious, he knows, than anything else they might own, but he does not have it. Instead, in his even, sensuous voice, he leaves them in the petty myths of Europe, of snowy Russia, the East.
Ann Cary Stuckey Kinder
Requiescat in Pace
1. James Salter, Light Years (1995), as quoted in James Meek, ‘Memories We Get to Keep’, London Review of Books, June 20, 2013, pp. 3, 6. A superb essay by Mr. Meek.