Sarah Canterbury: The Books I Never Read (Memoir)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in wildly wonderful state of West Virginia and have appreciated being uniquely southern my entire life. From music to food West Virginia is rich with Southern culture.
The Books I Never Read
I loved lying at the opposite end of my bed when my mom read to me. It was from that vantage point that I could watch her face as she read. Especially her eyes, I loved the way a reading eye looked. It dances across the page. It was then, I thought her eyes were the most beautiful. Her lids were closed enough to notice her delicate make up with neatly applied mascara, but they weren’t squinted either. Just slightly lowered to balance the glare from the bed lamp, and make out the standard print size of the text. As the open pages rested in her hands it was then that her pupils would lead the dance, like a maestro at the opera. Left to right, left to right, in a twitch- like pattern.
As my head would rest against the not so comfortable curved wooden frame of my lavish antique “princess bed,” stiffness would arise in my neck. It was worth the discomfort though, because it was my gateway in the countless stories. Stories that I heard only through my mother’s voice. What was really so important about lying at the end of the bed, was that it meant I could see the book’s cover. Although you are always told, “Never judge a book by its cover,” when you can’t read it’s your window. For the attention disordered and learning disabled child that I was, staring at the cover focused my real world struggles into an imagined escape. A Narnia.
I was in third grade when being learning disabled really started to bother me. I knew I couldn’t read and that I should be able to. That one was easy to figure out, all I had to do was look around. Kindergarten through second grade it was easier to hide. I could memorize the songs, times tables, and the states and capitals, but I couldn’t fake reading.
Third grade was the year of The Chronicles of Narnia specifically The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. At my small private school, it was big year. It meant having the beloved Mrs. Jones, who was so kind I believed she too walked on hooves or claws across magical fields out of Narnia. Our third grade class room looked like pages out of those books. In the corner stood an enchanting mahogany wardrobe, hand painted with scenes from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Although to adults it was still impressive, to third graders it towered above reality. Each day two students would be allowed to go into the wardrobe, peel back the fur coats and experience class from the most memorable, unconventional, desk.
“ By jove, you’re right,” said Peter, “and look there- and there. It’s trees all round. And this wet stuff is snow. Why I do believe we’ve got into Lucy’s wood after all.” And there was no mistaking it, and all four children stood blinking in the daylight of a winter day.
Every day we would discuss the books and watch the story become real, and every night we were assigned reading homework. An attempt to keep our imagination alive. But I will always remember those books in my mother’s voice. She had to read them to me. At school I suffered though hearing about others who could read alone. They bragged at times about how much they read the night before, often spoiling the story to come. Many times I lashed out in anger, mocking my classmates and belittling their accomplishments, which got me in trouble. Mrs. Jones, in her angelic way, would try and talk to me about it. Asking “Sarah why did you yell at your friends?” As a confused third grader though I never said why, mostly because I didn’t understand yet. I never realized how much I hung to each line of the stories I couldn’t read. They were more than stories to me. I was Lucy. I was Edmund. I knew Aslan.
“But I’ve been away for hours and hours,” said Lucy.
The other all stared at one another.
“Batty.” Said Edmund, tapping his head. “Quite batty.”
“What do you mean Lu? Asked Peter.
“What I said,” answered Lucy. “It was just after breakfast when I went into the wardrobe, and I’ve been away for hours and hours, and had tea, and all sorts of things have happened.”
There were many books mom read to us outside of what was assigned for school. Although the name escapes me there was one that had the most beautiful cover. I could never forget it. In the background, it had a bright frozen tundra that faded into scenic glacial mountains, with a blue sky slightly dimed due to blanketed cloud coverage. Centered was the beautiful dog team that looked like they might run straight off the page. The lead dog was grey and white, a picture of the perfect husky breed. He looked serious, but not scary. At nights from the foot of my bed, I would stare into his face and in that moment, I would see only the story. Somehow my mother’s voice which yielded the story, would fade into the background, and the barking from the dog team would grow louder in my ears.
I appreciated that illustrator, they even captured the breath of the dogs, billowing out, escaping into the icy atmosphere. I loved that book. Mom almost didn’t buy it though. At an annual book fair, it sat on make shift shelves that popped up in the gymnasium. The charming and magnificent illustration sat next to a cheaper version that only had the title and a fuzzy sunrise. As I begged for countless books my mother somehow refrained from reminding me I couldn’t read. Agreeing to buy more than she should have, she reached to replace the beautiful copy with its inferior brother. I stretched my hands out again and got the other.
“I want this one,” I said boldly but not demanding.
“This one is cheaper” my mom said back.
“I want this one,” I said again unaware I was not building my argument.
Not pleased with my answer mom tried to stay patient, “Sarah, it’s the same book.”
We just stood, eyes locked, neither budging on our stance.
“I want this one,” I said a third time wishing I could explain why.
“Okay, if you get that one you have to put all the others back,” mom said as she thought I would now see reason.
The problem was we didn’t have the same reasoning. I slowly took the other books, and carefully, one at a time put them exactly where I had found them.
Each one I sat down I seemed to be saying, “Sorry little book, not this time.”
Facing my mother once again I held out what I thought was the most beautiful book. She took it. I had accepted her deal. I don’t remember if she was mad, although she might have been. Mom never wasted money on things she thought were pointless. To me though the cover wasn’t pointless. The cover was the window into the only aspect of reading I didn’t struggle with. The cover was the wardrobe.
“Please mom,” I begged in a hush, as she started to close the book for the night.
She would reason with me, saying, “But those are the chapters that you are supposed to read.”
She looked like she too wanted to read on, although it was her third time having to read these books to a learning disabled child. As the bed lamps glare made her shadow twinkle against my majestic headboard my mind raced for a reason to continue.
“I’ll pretend I don’t know what happens,” I would say with a wink and as a whisper. With my neck still resting on the curved end of the bed I could see her draw in a deep breath, thinking.
“Brooke reads ahead every day and Marley too—” I knew my mother never cared what everyone else did, I wanted to finish my statement with, but since I can’t read it’s up to you. But that wouldn’t help either.
“Sarah I don’t think…” she began to say, but I couldn’t hear no that night.
“Please mom I have to know what happens to…” I began but couldn’t finish. The flood gates had been released and running from my red swollen eyes down the curve of my cheek I could begin to taste my tears. It is true. They really are salty.
“Sarah, what’s wrong,” my mom asked as she put the book down.
I can’t read. I can’t learn. I don’t know the end of Lucy’s story, but I know the end of mine. It’s nothing mom, that’s my end. What is life going to be like for a girl who can’t read?
“I just, I just, don’t want to story to be over for tonight.”
They would read passages, beautiful passages about the child hero aloud, as I would recognize the story but never the words. Silently I judged as my classmates would read about my friends in the book. They didn’t understand. I thought they couldn’t possibly appreciate the book like I did. While they were reading individual words I was painting each scene in my mind. I was living the book. Because I knew what it was like to not be able to read; a book, the stories, were sacred. I craved the stories because like the wardrobe they were my portal. They were my dream world where, as Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter became more than sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, I too became more than learning disabled.
I was free to imagine Narnia needed me. But when the reading stopped, and mom took the cover from my view, it meant the wardrobe was shut.
“ She rushed ahead of them, flung open the door of the wardrobe and cried, “Now! Go in and see for yourselves.”
“Why, you goose,” said Susan, putting her head inside and pulling the fur coats apart, “it’s just an ordinary wardrobe; look! There’s the back of it.”
It is sad how sometimes something you thought was so beautiful gets ruined. I once brought the husky book to school so I could show Mrs. Morris, my NILD (National Institute of Learning Disabilities) teacher, my true friend. I thought that much of it. She would want to see it. During quiet time I stared at the pages, trying to piece together where we were in the story at home. Soon we would go to our class room where it wasn’t about who was better than whom, it was all about me. As I waited I practiced the coveted eyelid dance, attempting to fool my fellow third graders, until my best friend blew my cover.
“Why did you bring that book?” She said with a question.
Although her words weren’t very loud they rippled through the class, making every nosy third grader turn towards me.
“I’m reading it,” I answered anxiously, as I readjusted the book in my clammy hands. I wanted that to end the conversation, why shouldn’t I be reading it?
Not getting the clue, with eyes squinted and her voice cracking she ended my third grade life, “But you can’t read that.”
I let a small gasp escape, “Yes I can” I pleaded back, to her, to the class. “Yes I can,” I yelled out again but the damage had been done.
She still stared at me in question, and everyone else seemed to cry out “prove it.” I knew exactly what was happening in the book, but she was right I couldn’t read it.
As I sat there with what I thought was my entire life in ruins, shattered, worthless. Mrs. Morris came to the door, someone called out, “Sarah, your teacher is here.” Their words brought all eyes back to me once again. It was as if Mrs. Morris, my friend, my teacher verified my inability. I slowly rose from my seat, jaw clinched, nostrils flared, and eyes pried open, my pathetic attempt to keep from crying. I pressed my precious book hard against my chest, like it was the only thing that would stop my heart from falling out.
“Oh how can they? Said Lucy, tears streaming down her cheeks. “The brutes, the brutes!” For now that the first shock was over the shorn face of Aslan looked to her braver, and more beautiful, and more patient than ever.”
“Goodnight Sarah,” Mom said as she began to slip out of my bedroom’s door.
“Mom,” hearing her name made her turn around again.
“Am I ever going to be able to read?”
I could see that my question made her want to cry because she crinkled her nose and blinked her eyes slowly.
“Yes, of course.” She said as she reentered the bedroom.
We both just looked at each other, calling out to the other, go on.
“Why did God make me stupid?” I asked her and Him.
“God did not make you stupid Sarah,” my mom replied back sharper than I expected. “He made you exactly how he wanted to.”
“He wants me to never read?” I asked, horrified by the thought.
“No Sarah. He wants you to trust Him.” Mom said calmly.
“I do trust Him though.” I said and asked, as we both stared at each other again. “Do I have to trust that He will help me read?”
“No.” Mom answered which confused me even more.
“He wants you to trust him no matter what. Whether you read or not,” she continued.
Silence filled the room as it had before, I had to break it, “Mom?”
Again she turned to meet my gaze with her all-knowing eyes.
“Is that how you trust God? You trust Him so much you’re not worried if I ever read or not?”
I watched a tear run from her eye, “No, but I want to.”
“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness.”
It is true though. When I had no more tears left there would be an un-paralleled quietness. When I think about it now, I see that same sort of quietness to be something I experienced every night. Every night with a stiff neck. It was a quietness though that was a little different. Instead of being miserable with no tears left, I heard the un-paralleled quietness that came when I surrendered to a story. In those moments, as I stared at the book covers, I escaped my doubt with all its questions. I became the characters of the books I never read.