We don’t know what will suddenly bring a dormant memory to consciousness. For Proust, it was the taste of madeleines. For me, it was a hymn sung in church.
“Whatsoever you do” was the song sung after communion at Mass a couple of weeks ago.
“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers . . . .“
Well, that’s how the scripture (Mt. 25:40) goes, but in an attempt at more inclusive language, the song my parish sings now says, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people . . . .“
The fourth verse begins “When I was little you taught me to read . . . .”
With those words, I was instantly back in the house we lived in when I was in preschool in Corvallis, Oregon, sitting on the couch beside my mother as she read to my brother and me. She taught me to read.
My mother later said a neighbor girl taught me to read, a girl a couple of years older than me with whom I played school the year before I started kindergarten.
But I believe it was my mother. I recall sitting beside her as she read to me and my younger brother. Every day she read to us.
I recall turning the pages to read ahead when Mother left the room, long before the neighbor girl and I played school. When Mother returned, I quickly turned back to the page where we had been when she left, afraid that if she knew I could read myself, she wouldn’t read to me any longer.
But she would have. Now I know she still would have read to me.
A decade later, after my much younger sister and brother were born, she read to them. And she didn’t mind when I sat down beside them to listen to the same books all over again.
Sometimes, when she was busy, I read to my younger siblings as she had read to me.
And many years later, when I had children of my own, my husband and I read to them. The Little House books. Kipling’s Just So stories. Johnny Tremain. Gary Paulsen. Little Women.
Reading has always been important in our family, through the generations.
My family’s tradition of reading makes the tragedy of my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease all the greater. She was a school librarian, but can no longer enjoy reading. She reads the same page of a book over and over again, not retaining what it says. She reads the newspaper, but does not understand the news, and asks what it means repeatedly.
So when I heard the words “When I was little you taught me to read,” my eyes welled with tears. My mother will not read to me again.
But I vow to keep her tradition of reading out loud to the children in our family alive.