When I was five, Mom had a few days off work over Christmas. She rolled out sugar cookie dough and let me cut out Christmas trees and reindeer with little tin cookie cutters. I sprinkled them with colored sugar before she slipped the trays into the oven.
She led me before the cardboard fireplace hung with our Christmas stockings and pulled out a Bible, which she had marked with scraps of paper tucked here and there. She read the Christmas story to me, but it was one she created herself by mixing the versions in a way that was pleasing to her. The story of the baby Jesus brought tears to Mom’s eyes. We bowed our heads and clasped our hands together and prayed a prayer from my Little Golden Book.
Dad walked in the door, carrying a box. I thought it would be a Christmas present he planned to wrap downstairs on the ping pong table which he had set up with all his gift wrapping materials and tools. But it turned out to be a box he had discovered in a school dumpster.
“I had to get out of my truck because the dumpster was so full they had boxes spilling out all over. That’s when I spotted this.” Dad crooked his index finger for me to follow and then glanced back at me. “It’s books. Maybe you can use them now that you’re in school.” Although I had only started school in September, I already knew how to read.Recently I asked my mother if she taught me to read with flashcards, the way she did my younger brother, but she didn’t remember. When I was a toddler I knew how to spell ice cream and by age 5 I could read children’s series books, but how I got from point A to B, I don’t know.
I skipped down the hall behind Dad. Peeking into the box, I saw outdated textbooks from the forties. I couldn’t wait to open them and was glad when my father left the room. When I lifted the books out of the box, they smelled like real school, not like kindergarten where you have to take a nap and can’t read. I was glad Dad drove a garbage truck and could find presents for me.
The second-grade reader had a story where the porridge left unattended on the stove poured onto the floor, out the door, and down the hill. I tried to skim and sample each book. Some of the books had poems, and they were all illustrated with water colors. Some, in the manner of Walter Crane illustrations, featured black, white, and orange.
At the bottom of the box, missing its paper jacket and like a lot of old books covered in a plain green fabric, was a fairy tale book. The stories of witches and poor sons and goblins in this book opened my mind to the world of possibilities. I would only have the book for a year because eventually it would disappear (care of my mother). Some of the stories had a habit of giving me nightmares (thank you, Brothers Grimm). Nevertheless, I am forever grateful that I had the book long enough for the fire of my imagination to be lit.