“it’s little, and we saw it and we knew what it meant. You remember that for me.” From “His Last Game,” Brian Doyle [i]
We read to our youngest girls every night at bedtime, as we had with our older children, and when they were still of fit on my knee age, I would hold both, a book held between them, in the chipped, painted black frame wooden rocking chair with the woven wicker seat and back. As they grew sleepy, and so did I, we would rock together, and I would sing softly. Sometimes a slightly misremembered song my father sang to us. “Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. Hush, now don’t you cry. Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. It’s an Irish lullaby.” [ii]
Another regular lullaby was “Lord, You are more precious than silver. Lord, You are more costly than gold. Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares to You.” When Angela was three and Meg was born, I brought Angela to meet Meg now outside Rita’s womb. As we were leaving Women and Infants Hospital in Providence to go home after the introduction, Angela, our koala bear hugger, was wrapped around me. Walking back to the parking lot, she sang in a clear, but sleepy voice, “Lord You are.” [iii]
Thousands of nights, week over week, year over year. I have a vivid memory of one night, while smelling their freshly washed hair against my cheek and gently rocking, a memory filled with longing. I remember thinking that there would be a last night I would do this, and I wouldn’t know when it ended. I don’t remember the last night.
When they were little, we started with books like “Cat in the Hat” with Sally and the troublesome house wrecking Thing One and Thing Two. “Maple Hill Farm” with its multiple, memorable animal characters. Beatrix Potter’s “Tale of Peter Rabbit” with Peter, the fearsome Mr. McGregor and Flopsy Mopsy. So many books now in boxes or with granddaughters.
As they grew, we moved to the couch or pillows on the floor. The whole Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series with a house on the prairie built of cut sod and thatched roof or a house in the woods built of logs. Dreamy, restless, loving, hardworking Charles. Resolute, long suffering, cheerful Caroline. Mischievous, adventurous Laura and kind, quiet Mary who loved her little sister and was struck blind during an illness and eventually became a teacher. The bargain Caroline negotiated with the terrifying Plains Indian in full war paint when Charles was away. “The Long Winter” we read in a cold New England winter, and we cuddled and shivered under blankets. The rope Charles strung from house to barn so that during one of the many, interminable blizzards, he would not lose his way to drag down hay for the animals and milk the cow, essential daily chores. Without the rope we were told, he could easily miss the barn in the blinding snow, although it was only ten yards from the house. And in missing it, perish to be found in the spring when the melting came.
The entire Chronicles of Narnia series with the handsome Prince Caspian and the heroic mouse, Reepicheep: Unhand the tail! No fear! No retreat! The Dawn Treader. The Magician’s Nephew. Marvelous, unforgettable C.S. Lewis stories. Most of all the first: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” with Peter, Lucy and the traitorous Edmund sent to live with the professor to escape the London Blitz. Through the magic wardrobe: The White Witch, Ice Queen. Poor friendly, brave, frozen Mr. Tumnus. And the noble, suffering, then triumphant Aslan, Lion: kind and terrifying; sacrificed, humiliated, then resurrected to redeem with overwhelming power the ice-covered, bleak land from the White Witch’s cruel spell.
Later we read Lewis’s dear friend J.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” with pleas each night for just one more chapter. Bilbo and Gollum, goblins, hobbits, dwarves, elves, a dragon and wizards. Literally wonderful. One December, we read Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” with chains, doorknobs, ghosts, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge, Tiny Tim and small crutches enshrined in the corner of the simple kitchen, shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Future. And tombstones. Reawakening and miracles. So many books, so many years
We continued to read aloud each night as a family into their pre-teen years. One summer, when Angela and Meg were older, college and high school, we rented a cottage on Great Pond in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, near my brother Martin’s summer home. Rita and I couldn’t travel up there until Sunday, but Meg and Angela wanted to go up and open the camp on Saturday when the rental period began. The nights were still chilly. While the invitation was open at Marty’s to stay there, the sisters wanted to stay with each other in our camp – listen for the night call of the loons and watch for the reflection of stars on the water like they did so many times at the other Maine camp on Webb Lake in Weld, where we vacationed for a decade every summer. When the moon rose, and the night grew quiet over Great Pond, they curled up on the couch and read to each other.
Some memories dim and become blurry like a hazy, slightly out of focus special effect in an art film. Some do not.
Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem — “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth.” Epitaph – Cardinal John Henry Newman
[i] Lovely, lyrical, poignant, simply and profoundly true. Written upon his brother Kevin’s death. https://notredameclassof1969blog.blogspot.com/2017/05/his-last-game-by-brian-doyle-78-for-his.html?view=flipcard&m=1