I’m home early Monday with a long list of things to do before I head back to work at night, but lunch comes first.
And I heat a bowl of soup in the $5 microwave he bought from a garage sale before I even met him and pour a glass of water and watch the rain fall steady from a gray October sky.
An hour later, it’s an all-out ferret war that pulls me back from the pages, reminds me of dirty dishes congregating on the counter and dust bunnies pulled from under the book shelf and clothes dropped on the bedroom floor because it’s cold at night and I dive under blankets as quick as I can.
It’s been years since I read it, but the pages great me like old friends. There are memories in all of them: Dad’s voice thickening with sleep as our homemade beeswax candles burned low and my head nodded forward because it was 10 o’clock but the words were new then and we didn’t want him to stop; watching embers glow bright as he read the story again, years later, me remembering as we went and younger siblings frantic, hiding heads in shoulders or laps, skinny bodies tense, hands clenched.
Some lines echo in my head before I’ve read more than the first word. “And Gollum was upon him,” and I’m putting on my red, “Little Red Riding Hood” coat to hurry out the door for Wednesday night church and protesting, “But you can’t stop here! Just five minutes,” nearly in tears in the anxiety of the moment. (We did stop there. Scarred for life, Dad, scarred for life.)
We grew up reading every night. Toddlers played with LEGOs or chipped wooden blocks until squabbles broke out and the offender (and sometimes victim, too) was sent to his seat. Mom mended when she wasn’t holding someone (which was rare). Later, I started cross stitch projects, my hands unable to be still.
Much later, I hovered between loving and resenting those nights. “How many family nights are you going to miss in a week?” They’d ask, and I, the oldest, faced little faces uncomprehending why I’d leave and parent faces wondering what was going wrong that, despite everything, peers who may or may not talk to me on a given day were more important than family time.
But my very first memories of those nights are of Tolkien’s trilogy or the shorter book, The Hobbit. Our copies were paperback, quickly worn and faded and with bent and torn covers from random children carrying them out into trees on hot Texas afternoons. Even our conversation was framed with references to it.
“Smash the bottles and break the plates, that’s what Mommy Daniels hates!” Someone started the refrain during so many after-dinner cleanups, racing for the maximum reading time.
When, at 18, I boarded a plane for Costa Rica to learn Spanish and find my place in the world, it was the Breaking of the Fellowship.
But as a freshman in college I met the strange other-world of Tolkien fanatics, and the books took on a sour taste. Suite-mates passed down our hall in Elvish cloaks on their way to a hobbit party; someone in logic class spoke the invented language of the high elves. Tolkien was as of much import in their daily lives as the Latin textbooks their academic futures rested on, and I wanted no part of it.
I quit talking about the books, and haven’t read them since (except once in Spanish, because the words were so familiar I could follow them even in another language).
I lost the innocent enjoyment I had known because I saw so many take it so far, into a sort of alternate reality.
It’s been four years since I walked away from that college, started working, found myself a bride, a journalist, a mother bereaved. And as the autumn winds blew and September ended and leaves fell and the nights grew cold, I passed the books on my shelf and missed their friendship.
It’s good to find those familiar words again.