Today’s reblog is the 3rd piece I posted. Please make it a beautiful day!
Tag Archives: learning to read
Day 2 of my hiatus, here is the 2nd post I wrote for this blog about learning to read and writing memoir and, above all, the ways of memory.
When I was four, I spent the seven-month Michigan winter playing in our basement. Dad had built walls in opposite corners, one to create a laundry for Mom and the other for his workshop. The open area just outside the workshop had become my playroom. Nothing special designated it as mine. The floor was concrete, which Dad had painted with gray industrial paint. Scotch tape didn’t hold up my drawings on the cinder block wall, and when I tried to nail a finger-painting to the gritty cement, I wasn’t strong enough and Dad’s hammer was too heavy. The nail slipped to the floor, my painting torn.
What my playroom contained were wooden crates of costumes and dolls and books. These served as portals to my imagination. With the single light bulbs shining from overhead, and these possessions spread out before me, the room felt cozy and cheerful, no matter that the window up near the board-studded ceiling was blocked by a snow drift.
One day, as I sat cross-legged, engrossed in Little Red Riding Hood, my mother came out of the laundry room and sang me part of an old song:
School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
‘Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.
She laughed and said, “I’m glad to see you’re so good at your 3Rs.”
I didn’t understand what she meant, so she explained to me that the basics of a good education were reading, writing, and arithmetic. I could read and write and liked to add small sums on the notepads Dad brought me home from work.
She was right. I loved all three subjects. I couldn’t get enough of my Little Golden Books and each time we went to National grocery store, I begged for one of the 25-cent books with the foil spines.
The power of writing a sentence was already apparent to me. There was a symmetry to subject-verb-direct object which thrilled me.
And who wouldn’t love to create beautiful numbers out of lines and curves and then find out that 2 + 2 always equals 4? How serene I felt once I understood that certainty.
Upon starting school, I continued to relish all the subjects we studied. Science, the partner of math, captivated me in all its forms—meteorology (keeping a temperature log), astrology (creating a scrapbook of the nine planets), biology (growing mold on potatoes). I was complete, a whole person, half reading/writing and half math/science.
During arithmetic, we were presented with both numerical problems and story problems. The latter were akin to reading mysteries. It stands to reason that I would have loved story problems, but herein lies a problem. A problem related to writing memoir. No matter how much I think about it, I can’t remember whether I preferred numerical or story problems. It seems that I ought to know the answer to that, but the experience is long forgotten or disremembered.
Along with the absence of that memory is another mystery. I don’t know where I lost the math side of me and became identified with only one side, the reading/writing side. How did something that seemed so fresh and interesting to me as a child become a burden by junior high? If I could remember how I felt about story problems could I find the answer?
Tristine Rainer, in her book Your Life as Story, gives a variety of tricks to retrieve memories. Her tricks include:
- study photos as “memory sparkers”
- listen to music from the time period
- re-visit the floor plan of your old home
- let your body remember through an action or movement
As I work on my memoir, sometimes I can’t remember important parts of my story, and I use Rainer’s ideas. For me, internet research into a time period sometimes helps. So do old television shows, since I am of the first serious TV generation.
If I want to solve the mystery of my dislike of math, maybe I should follow Rainer’s 4th trick and get my hands on an old arithmetic textbook and start solving problems.
“Each [memoir] is in its own way an account of detection, a realized effort to assemble the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.”
The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts
When I was a young teen we had a subscription to Psychology Today. I read about codes and code breaking in one issue and all my Nancy Drew instincts banded together and urged me on to become a code cracker. This desire had probably originated even earlier as I’d ordered a book on codes from the Scholastic Book Fair in 6th grade. The book had seemed beyond my abilities until I read the magazine article; that’s when I appropriated the large blackboard on our basement wall and began studying code breaking in earnest. My mother would shake her head when she came down to sort laundry. The board was riddled with what looked like equations made up of hangman games. It’s likely that I had a distracted absent-minded professor look on my face. Within a year I started dating, which gave me human codes to crack, and I gave up on my CIA code-breaking dream.
A few years ago I began work on a memoir. As I write about my past, I try to find keys to the meanings of my memories. This process is not much different from the code cracking I taught myself as a teen. We have memories, Sven Birkerts explains, which are involuntary. As memoirists, we need to investigate why a particular memory of a seemingly meaningless moment has such power that it still calls to us through decades.
One of those moments for me happened when I was a toddler. I’d been quarantined to my bedroom for days from illness, but was finally well enough to be allowed out of my bed. Mom carried me out to the living room and plopped me onto a chair. I leaned back, angling myself against the chair back, waggling my feet out in front of me. I felt antsy all over–as if I needed to get outside or I’d suffocate.
My parents had finished supper an hour before, and Dad had been at his workbench since then. Now he’d come upstairs and was conferring with Mom in the doorway to the kitchen. “What do you think about going to Lockshore Dairy for some I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M?”
As if the fog in my head parted at that moment, my mind pounced with clarity. “Ice cream?! Mommy! Daddy! Please!”
My parents looked at me in surprise and then exchanged a look with each other. After all, I was not much more than an infant to them. My mother said, “She can read!”
My parents would no longer be able to spell their secrets when I was in the room. Their dismay over my code breaking was overshadowed by their pride in my spelling ability. Their beaming faces glowed together into one big shining focus.
I have no memory of learning to read. I remember my mother making reading cards for my little brother and painstakingly teaching him to read. I asked her the other day if she taught me to read the same way she did my brother, but she couldn’t recall. What I remember is assembling the letters in my head into a readable code and the hidden answer “ice cream” popping into my head and onto my tongue. The reward for reading was that my parents now had no choice but to load me up in the backseat of the car and head downtown. The satisfaction of breaking the code of words was thus reinforced with a vanilla ice cream cone, as well as a taste of Dad’s butter pecan and Mom’s tutti-frutti.
Maybe it was more than the ice cream. It could have been seeing my parents’ smiles glowing together, knowing that at that moment they were united and happy with my achievement. It’s possible I spent years trying to replicate that moment with my report cards.
Looking farther afield from that moment, I’m struck by the timeline. Reading came together for me after I had been sick in bed for a week, imprisoned in my bed within my narrow bedroom. In this way, reading came to represent freedom, something which I spent my childhood longing for. And so I read. First, I read my Little Golden books and in kindergarten I graduated to my mother’s Bobbsey Twin books, which were followed by Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton and then the Louisa May Alcott books. Eventually they led to the code book and Psychology Today and Birkerts’ theories of writing memoir.
Writing Prompt: A voluntary memory is one we actively seek to remember. An involuntary one is a small, mundane memory which appears in the mind without having to search for it by will. Write an involuntary memory down using as much detail as you can remember. Then try to recall, if possible, what came right before and what came right after. Write it all down. When you read over what you have written watch for details which surprise or intrigue you, as well as connections to other memories and connections to who you are today. Write about these connections and what you learn from the details.