A most exciting thing happened last night. My daughter read to me.
She was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, a tiny five-pounder swaddled in donated blankets, when we first read together - "Goodnight Moon," I suspect.
Having seen in a magazine somewhere that babies who hear complex language develop stronger verbal skills, I bought a fresh new translation of Homer's "The Odyssey" the day before we finally got to bring her home, six long weeks after her birth.
"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course once he had plundered/ the hallowed heights of Troy": That's about how far Elizabeth permitted me to get in one of my favorite books. "Oops," I realized as she knocked it from my hands, "this is one baby who's going to set her own agenda, and Homer ain't on it yet."
Three books or stories a night, more age-appropriate, have been our regular routine since then. We've re-read some so often that she sometimes suggests saying the words in reverse just to reinvent a bit of novelty - "Madeline was one smallest the/ lines straight two in girls little 12." The moment we pick a book, she knows everything I'm going to say. I routinely substitute a few weird new words here and there just to make sure she's paying attention. She is.
I was starting to wonder, though, when she might get fired up about doing it herself. It's warm and comfortable being read to, cuddling in an intellectual nest, but I always figured my tough little gal would want to assert her independence by eliminating the middleman in her reading pleasure.
Last night marked the first real sign in that joyous and slightly sad process: I like being the middleman. Instead of reciting the words from memory as she's been doing before, a kind of pretend reading, Elizabeth started whipping through one of her first-grade Accelerated Reader books. She suddenly broke the code. I was so tickled.
Chapter books will be my next gambit for enhancing this precious time together. Ancient Greek poems probably are still out, but I kind of figure "Call of the Wild" may be a good introduction to "real" literature. In one of our many role-playing games, she likes to be a powerful girl raised by wild dogs, so Jack London's heroic thinking dog, Buck of the Arctic, may just strike a chord.
It's great hanging out with such a richly imaginative person, and I like to lead her along sometimes just to see what she'll come up with. Last week, it was "How do you touch the sky, Daddy?"
"Go up into it in an airplane or a rocket ship."
"No, how do you touch the sky with your hand?"
"Well, I guess you could climb a mountain. The sky's up there."
"How do mountains grow? A seed?"
"How big is it? As big as me?"
I'm truly grateful for these little exchanges. Just like the green bean we grew in the windowsill this summer, which yielded a crop of seven plump pods, it sort of makes sense that a mountain might grow from an Elizabeth-sized seed. I like the idea.
All kinds of traits get passed down through families, genetic and behavioral. There's still not much we can do about the genetic stuff, but how we spend time with our kids is so vital, and reading is near the top of the list.
My own daddy used to buy and read me what we called funny books: Donald Duck, Archie and my favorite, Classics Illustrated. We read Huckleberry Finn for real, night after night and side-by-side, but my first exposure to many authors like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Kipling came in abridged form in comics. It was a pretty great way to go, and I mourned a little when Classics Illustrated was allowed to go under.
Those evenings with my dad and mom set me on my life-long path of reading. Watching my little old high school drop-out grandpa poring over newspapers got me started toward publishing. Words and hugs and sitting close started me toward being (I hope) a good parent. It's an inheritance I'm trying hard to pass down.
Matt Winters is the editor of the Chinook (Wash.) Observer.