When I first learned how to read my parents limited my access to children’s books and strongly encouraged me to challenge myself with my reading. There were some exceptions to this that seem arbitrary and glaring to me now. For example, I was allowed to read very violent stories (more on that in a moment) but anything sexual was considered very taboo. I went through three copies of Brave New World before I finished it. My mother would find my current copy (yard sales and library turnovers were my friends- and still are) and tear out the chapters featuring orgies. Finally, I learned to hide the book in the bathroom air-conditioning vent. I fished it out each night with a bent coat-hanger. Poetry was encouraged. Before her illness really sunk its teeth into her spine, my mother was a trained Shakespearian actor. My father has an undying love for Dylan Thomas and Tennyson. They never taught me how to read poetry- I learned that on my own- but the books were around and I was allowed to stay up as late as I wished so long as I was reading. This was a blessing to an insomniac such as myself. I have always had a troubled relationship with sleep.
The first stories that I remember my parents reading to me seem to be a rather disparate group. Beowulf, Inferno, The Odyssey (never the Iliad), and The Velveteen Rabbit were the four main works of fiction. Obsessive from an early age, I asked for them over and over and over again, until I had passages memorized. I know now that the versions of the first three that my father read me were abridged translations. They were illustrated (I remember Doré’s ‘Forest of the Suicides’ with an almost preternatural clarity, and I blacked out the face of Satan in another illustration with a red Crayola.) and my father would always pause in his reading to give me time to gather the full effect of the art. I cannot remember who illustrated the Odyssey, but the blinding of the Cyclops was particularly graphic- the splintery wooden shaft was depicted within the eye-socket which leaked vitreous humour like tears. I still have nightmares about that. I have no idea why I identified with the monster.
Of course, we also read the Bible. But, being sacred to us, that book was placed in a different category from the others. We could read it for fun (I often read the juicier sections of the Old Testament in the second Sunday service, having heard the sermon twice already – once while he was writing it, and once in the early morning service.) But I was never allowed to approach it like I would any other book. It was only much later that I learned to read the Bible for its prose- and I found it more sacred for the touch of humanity that allowed.
Of that list, the book which probably sticks out the most is The Velveteen Rabbit. It seems so innocent next to those others. But consider this dialogue:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
That passage is full of the acceptance of pain and the willingness to suffer in order to achieve a noble goal. Beowulf went down into the pit armed with his sword. Odysseus battled monsters and descended into the land of the dead in order to return to his wife (his best treasure). Dante chased a ghost through the corridors of hell and was rewarded with a glimpse of God. The velveteen rabbit suffers symbolic death on a pyre before being born into flesh and fur. I do not believe that my parents chose these books accidentally.
The last time I visited Edinburgh I met a lady who remembered my parents from the two years that my father served as an associate pastor (before he joined the navy). She told me a story that has stuck in my memory. Apparently she was sitting behind my mother and I in the upper gallery (I was three, but my parents brought me into the service to teach me church etiquette) my mother was the same age that I am now, in dress and hairstyle she emulated Princess Diana. I was dressed in crinolines and yellow polyester. My hair was drawn into tight pigtails and I was fussing quite badly. According to this woman, my mother took my chin in her fingers, turned my face up to hers, and stage-whispered, ‘Darling, you must suffer to be beautiful.’
Say what you will about my parents. They were consistent in theme.