I vividly remember the instant I learned to read. That Helen-Keller-Miracle moment when the random symbols I recognized as individual letters unexpectedly took shape and became a word. It was winter 1961, I was four years old, standing in the front seat of our red ’48 Ford pickup. My dad, a failed Baptist minister with a winsome smile and a sunken chest, was at the wheel as we flew along Interstate 5. With every exhale, he filled the cab with the smell of Lucky Strike cigarettes, as we wound northward through the mountain roads of Northern California, on our way to our new home of Cove, Oregon. I can count on one hand the number of happy memories that include my dad, but this is surely one of them.
The contents of our previous house in Los Angeles teetered precariously in the back, even more were crammed into the trailing U-Haul. I contentedly bounced back and forth across the big bench seat, waving occasionally at Momma, reflected in the side mirror as she followed behind, driving a pink and white Rambler. Her salt and pepper mane gently floated, halo-like around her happy face as she waved back. As dangerous as this situation sounds today, I would later refer to myself at this time as overprotected. But little did Momma know that any dangers she ever tried to protect me from, would pale in comparison to the monstrous secret my dad was hiding.
I was the third daughter of four for my dad, the first of two of her own for Momma. Before I was born, she had become an instant mother to my dad’s two teenaged girls after their mother died. Momma tried desperately to give them the nurturing they needed, but never quite managed the trick. No matter what she did, they were always in trouble, always running away from home. Years later, when my dad was dead and Momma was in the last stages of Alzheimers, my older sisters finally confided in me that they ran away because he had been molesting them. The poor darlings were in and out of boarding schools over the entire seven years between my mom and dad’s marriage and my arrival, and Momma, unaware of the horrible truth, blamed herself. Maybe as a result of that experience, or maybe because I was her first, a clean slate so to speak, Momma considered all other children who weren’t me, to be a source of either bad germs or bad influences, and therefore something to be avoided. Consequently, for the first five years of my life, I rarely interacted with anyone other than my parents and grandparents.
Fortunately for me, those grandparents, my dad’s mom and dad, who I called Mungio and Grampa, lived across the street from us in Los Angeles. The times I spent with them were some of the happiest I can remember. From helping Grampa return a tiny hummingbird’s nest to the crooked branch of their magnolia tree, to making sugar cookies with Mungio, I knew instinctively that with them, I was safe and unconditionally loved. Away from their home, I was an intrepid explorer, intensely inquisitive, and always ready for an adventure, and more often than not I had some kind of bruise or scrape from falling off of, or into something. In fact, I had spent most of the early part of the previous year with my left leg in a cast. Momma always said I was just accident prone or trying to satisfy my curiosity. But I feel like I was running away from something, although I can never recall what.
I can’t say exactly what that first magical word I remember reading was. It wavers in my memory like a heat mirage on the asphalt horizon. I do remember the green of a highway sign with its sharp white lettering. It probably was the name of some central Oregon town, like Union, or Baker Creek, but for the sake of irony, considering my dad’s botched religious career, I’d like it to have been Hell’s Canyon that I yelled out in that rapturous moment. Once I realized I possessed the awesome power of reading, the whole world opened up front of me, I was weightless, I was dizzy, I was thirsty for more.
There was the simple four-letter word engraved in the big steering wheel
There was the white square sign racing up to us
There were roadside businesses
–M-O-T-E-L! and G-A-S!
All of these words I excitedly read out loud, rewarded each time with my dad’s enthusiastic “Yes!” punctuated with a burst of bitter smoke. I’m sure I ran across the bench seat of the truck and threw my arms around his neck and I’m sure he hugged me back. I’m also a little afraid that if anyone had been able to see us, they might have thought that hug lasted just a little too long.
The reason my left leg was in a cast the previous year, was because I broke it jumping off of a 5-foot chest of drawers at the home of a woman Momma had asked to babysit me. This is significant, since that day marked the first and last time Momma ever went anywhere without me until I was in Kindergarten. She blamed herself for my injury, assuming that the other children had goaded me into performing that dry land high dive. I, however, knew better. It was all Tinker Bell’s fault.
Before the accident, I would watch Romper Room or Sheriff John in the morning, or go across the street to Mungio and Grampa’s house. Tinker Bell, who lived in an empty Tang jar on the floor of my closet, was my only companion. At night, when my parents were asleep, I would sit cross legged on the floor of my bedroom in my footie jammies, and whisper to Tink about my solitary day. She in turn would flit about the room, telling me stories in her jingly voice, about far-away lands, and her friends the pirates, and princesses, and other fairies. Best of all, she reminded me that just like her, I too could fly. I’d suspected it all along, but that night, with her hands sternly on her hips, Tink outright dared me to fly the next day. She even threatened to leave her happy Tang jar home if I did not. Solemnly, I promised to take the dare and was honor-bound to exercise my wings the very next day.
So, while Sherriff John talked to us about being safe little citizens from his TV office, I climbed on to the arm of the stranger’s couch. As the other kids sat on the floor in front of the flickering black and white screen, I climbed the next level up to the back of the couch. Standing now with my spine against the wall, all I had to do was turn to my left and wiggle my belly onto the flat top of the chest of drawers. Once there, I stood up, thought my happiest thought, and jumped. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember being very disappointed, not only by the fact that my leap of faith didn’t result in flight, but that despite my obedience, when I returned home from getting a cast on my leg, Tink had moved out anyway.
The direct benefit, I found, of being a 3 year old with a broken leg, is being read to in someone’s lap for an extended period of time. Daily, Momma read to me about pokey puppies, and saggy baggy elephants from every Little Golden Book we could get our hands on. The pictures and words spilled off the pages into my open mind, her lilting voice giving reverence and personality to every character.
My dad read me the funny pages at the back of the newspaper. Black and white pictures during the week, then a four page burst of color on Sundays. I’ve never really liked the funny pages, and didn’t like sitting still after dinner while my dad read them to me. I’d watch his two yellow, nicotine stained fingers, scissor-gripping a cigarette as he traced each cartoon speech bubble, stabbing the page when my attention drifted, “Here, look here!” he’d demand.
Mungio let me read cookbooks to her while she bustled around her kitchen. In looking through those old cookbooks recently, the drawings between the recipes stirred a memory. She told me once that as a small child I used to pretend I was reading. What would come out of my mouth were stories of Goliath jumping over the moon and then running away with bowls that were just right, and only-begotten-sons sailing away in wooden shoes. But the funny thing she said, was that my stories would always end not with happily ever after, but “and they all fall down.”
My favorite reading time though, was snuggling into my Grampa’s red leather chair with him, behind his big mahogany desk, as he wrote his sermons. Those miniature words, neatly lined up in columns, filled the thin pages of his worn gilt edged bible. He cradled the book, its black cover melting over the sides of one hand, and read those tiny words in such a large voice, I felt them as well as heard them. On Sunday mornings, I watched others around me, including my dad, shiver and shrink as Grampa rained the word-of-our-lord down upon them, while I, having heard them all before, blew him kisses and prayed that God would give me wings.
Tang. The drink of astronauts. I’ve often wondered why my friend Tink chose to live in that particular jar, in my particular closet. I was mad at her for a long time, because I thought she’d lied to me. Telling me I could fly, then leaving, without even so much as a farewell. But thinking about it today, I realize that if I hadn’t tried to fly, I wouldn’t have broken my leg. If I hadn’t broken my leg, I don’t think I’d have been given the gift of so many hours of reading time, and without that, I wouldn’t have discovered so early on, the amazing magic of putting letters together to form words. Those mystical words eventually came together to form sentences, with which I could then sail the seven seas with pirates, climb castles with princesses, and fly to the moon with astronauts who drank Tang. So I guess in a way, Tink was right, I could fly. Reading gave me wings.