Presents arriving suddenly from the long distant past are often disconcerting, like the wedding dress that came winging to me a few weeks ago.
But this present is different. I am moved almost to tears by it, and by my sister Eleanor’s generosity and perspicacity in choosing to send it to me.
You see, one of the blessed memories of my childhood is my father’s reading aloud in the evening—every evening, almost, in spite of a host of social and political engagements.
Dickens provided the core of what he read. He told me he hoped to read me all the novels.
We never made it to the end of that long list, but I can still see him sitting in the library armchair, wearing his velvet smoking jacket and black velvet slippers with fox heads embroidered on the toes—all theatre, he was no rider or hunter or smoker—with a thick volume on his knee. His appetite for what he was reading, and, doubtless, for the sound of his own mellifluous, slightly Southern voice, created in me the appetite for words that has provided the meaning of my life.
The set of Dickens he read from was special: bound in pale caramel calf, with insets of brocade and titles in gold on hefty spines, the novels were illustrated with spidery Edwardian drawings that did not match the dramatic effect of Dickens’ extraordinarily vital characters.
While he read, I sat at his knee on a velvet covered, rocking Gout Stool—the only one I’ve ever seen—designed to rock a swollen leg.
We made it through Great Expectations with its chilling opening and the reoccurring of a threat I never really understood; Bleak House, my favorite, although I didn’t understand Lady Deadwood’s dilemma (and Father never explained anything), but I felt her power; The Pickwick Papers, whose humor escaped me although it made Father roar; The Old Curiosity Shop and Little Dorrit, both sickeningly sweet from my point of few; Dombey and Sons, which mystified me, and probably a few more.
The readings carried me from grade school to high school, ending when, no longer able to sit still on the Gout Stool and listen, I took to pacing the floor, Father’s gold pocket watch in my hand.
He never said anything, closing the last volume and going on into his adult evening. He was not a sentimentalist.
When my sons and step-sons were growing up, he came to the house religiously on Monday evening to read aloud what he considered boys’ tales: Preston John, Two Years Before The Mast, and the like. By then, though, boys were not trained to listen to an hour of reading aloud without fidgeting, yawning, stretching and even falling asleep. But Father kept the tradition going, at least for a while.
Yesterday six or eight large book boxes arrived from my sister. Each contained many volumes from the calf-bound set that provided my evenings’ readings. Heavy, often two-volume novels, they bear a 1900 copyright—by no means first editions—and were edited by Richard Garnet. They belong to that gentleman’s library that, decades ago, often provided the only education to which middle and upper class girls had access.
As I unwrapped each one and put it on the shelf, I felt a wave of gratitude for Eleanor’s generosity, and for the memory of my father in his smoking jacket, reading aloud.