My father loved books. Especially Church books. He read the scriptures and every new book about the scriptures that came out. I remember watching him read and marveling at the power of words that captivated him so that he wasn’t even aware I was in the room. I could do almost anything while Dad was reading and not get in trouble. He was far away--in his book.
But watching him read made me wish with all my heart that I could decipher the code to unlock the words so I could read myself. I wanted to go to the places he went and know the things he knew. Sometimes when he set a book down and left the room, I’d pick it up, breath in the scent that wafted off the pages as I opened the book—new books had a light, meadow smell and old ones a heavy, oily smell. I’d close my eyes to savor the taste and then slowly open my eyes as if somehow the scent was a magic power that would allow me to read. But still the black marks were only black marks. Other times when I stared at the black marks long enough, they seemed to lift from the page and dance. As soon as I focused to see better they settled onto the page and behaved. I never seemed to be able to keep them dancing.
But there was something more than the desire to read that drove me. I wanted more than anything to write my own books, and I knew I had to learn to read before I could write. I’m certain the desire to write came into this world with me. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a major part of me. Long before I could read or write I spent hours making up stories and longing to be able to write them down so they wouldn’t float away like leaves in the ditch.
One day before I started kindergarten, Dad came home with a teacher’s edition of the Dick and Jane readers and gave it to me. It was a thick green book that contained all the first grade primers and instructions for teachers on how to teach reading. I opened to the first picture page and Dad helped me sound out the words. Now that he explained it, it was so simple. Each mark had its own sound. All I needed to do was learn the sounds. For the next few weeks, I pestered mother while she dusted and scrubbed asking what sound each letter made and learning the digraphs and diphthongs. Before long I was hurrying through Dick and Jane and devouring any book I could lay my hands on. My favorite were fantasy stories, especially the classical fantasy stories by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm.
Maybe because I loved them so much, I had always figured that must be what Dad read so intently. One day I picked up a book he’d been reading—the kind with no pictures—and discovered to my horror that his books weren’t stories at all. Every book that had ever been read to me was a story. But Dad’s books were ideas and thoughts that other people had. I smiled to think that for years I had longed to read his books so I could talk with him about the stories. But in Dad’s books nothing happened to talk about. It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate Dad’s books and then we talked and I discovered ideas were even more fun to discuss than stories. That’s when Dad’s books became my passion also.
It wasn’t long after I learned to read the first Dick and Jane books, I began making my own books. I’d write my story along the bottom half of a page, illustrate the story on the top half , fold the pages, collate them, staple them together at the spine, paint a bright cover, and go door to door selling them. Most people said, “No, thank you.” But Mrs. Torrey and Aunt Nora always invited me in to inspect my books. They’d give me milk and cookies and we’d eat as they oohed and awed over the cover. They’d read the text out loud, praised my great story telling abilities, and ask when I was going to write my next book. How I loved those women.
After our conversation, Aunt Nora would reach into her apron pocket, pull out a penny or a nickel, and buy my book. Mrs. Torrey would tell me how much she’d like to buy my book, but that she just didn’t have any money right then. It didn’t matter. I’d tell her she could have the book anyway and her delight at such a gift was more than enough payment for a five year old. Come to think of it, it’s still enough payment for me. What more could I ever have asked?
Years later as I suffered through the years of rejection slips and returned manuscripts, memories of encouraging words over cookies and milk kept me going. After all, someone, someplace had liked my writing! When I finally sold my first story, I wished that Aunt Nora and Mrs. Torrey were still alive so I could thank them. When I glimpsed my first book sitting on a bookstore shelf, I said a little prayer of gratitude for two women whose small acts of kindness made all the difference in my life. Hopefully someday and in some way I can be as encouraging to someone else.