Monday, July 11, 2016

Reading Notes: James Herriot and Musings About Our Family Reading Life

I mentioned yesterday that I've been reading James Herriot again. His books make me want to share a cuppa with someone while we muse about the beauty of the Yorkshire dales.

I first found Herriot when I was in high school. I read through his semi-autobiographical memoirs (All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All) named for lines from the hymn by Cecil Alexander, and they've been on my list of books to recommend for the sweet girl's high school years as a result. He is a keen observer of human and animal nature. His stories manage to be warm and charming without falling into sentimentality, maybe because he's so good at providing detailed accounts of some rather gritty veterinary work with farm animals. 

I never forgot Herriot in the intervening years. I fell in love with his books for children (slightly adapted tales of the same kind you'd find in the larger books) when I was in college, and the sweet girl and I spent many wonderful hours reading and re-reading his Treasury for Children when she was little. I'm pretty sure I reviewed that for Epinions. If I can dig it up in my archives, I'll give it a quick revising and post it here.

A few years ago I dipped into the book Jim Herriot's Yorkshire, but it was just recently that I really got back to reading his wonderful stories of people and animals. His Dog Stories made me laugh and made me realize how much I'd missed his way with canines...and with words. I'm trying to revive our family read-aloud tradition by reading some of the stories with D and S whenever we can manage to sit down to a meal together during this busy summer.

It feels strange to say I'm trying to revive our family read-alouds. For thirteen and a half years, that was a daily habit. We always read aloud together. If you've followed along with my sidebar list of our family read-alouds, you've seen the long list of books we've read over the years. I seriously don't think I had missed a day of reading aloud since S was a baby.

When I got my cancer diagnosis back in February, we were in the midst of re-reading The Chronicles of Prydain. In fact, we were near the end of the series, in the final book. Although sometimes D and S do the reading aloud, I have typically been the main reading person. I had so little energy at night by the time we reached the final third of The High King that the sweet girl took over the reading and brought us home to the beautiful conclusion.

And then our read-alouds stopped. And so did nightly family gatherings and prayers, and my morning Bible reading and prayer time with the sweet girl, and any semblance of bedtime routine for the family, and most of our family meals (though those continued in some form without me, especially when my sisters were here helping during my chemo treatments). So many things we've cherished over the years fell by the wayside during the tsunami of survival season.

During that season, S had six months or so where she continued to grow and change. She had her fourteenth birthday a few weeks ago (so amazing!). She's gotten more into retro video games in the interim -- she is Mario crazy -- and in general has been spending a lot more time with a screen via her iPod as well as gaming. I know those things helped her through the difficult time of my chemo treatments, a period she described to me the other day by telling me she feels like I've come back from the dead or at least a really long trip. "It's like you were there but you weren't," she explains earnestly. And often adds, sometimes with a spontaneous hug that melts my heart, "I missed you! I'm so glad you're back!"

And she's suddenly telling me she is "too old for read-alouds" -- something I never thought I'd hear her say. We never treated read-alouds like a little kid phenomenon that you outgrow. It was just a natural part of what our family loved to do together, and I had assumed we would continue to do it as long as S lived here...and beyond (D and I were read-alouders long before we had a child).

There are hills one dies on in parenting, and hills you decide it's not worth the effort to storm. This one feels worth the effort. I have been trying to decide how to tackle it well. I know that things will never go back to what they were before we hit this difficult terrain in our family journey -- they couldn't really, even if we wanted them to. We've all changed and grown in so many ways. But I am trying to revive our long-established tradition of reading aloud, albeit in new ways and forms. Our morning Bible reading and prayer time has been re-established, although it's changed a bit (in good ways, I think). In terms of our family reading, nighttime doesn't seem to be the right time for us to gather anymore, but we're beginning to have more meals together again, and we're slowly getting back into the reading habit. We started with an article in a magazine, and now we've moved to short stories.

I'm kind of glad the stories are by Herriot. They remind me of S's childhood, even though they're different than the ones we read then. They remind me of my own youth (and yes, I've begun re-reading All Creatures Great and Small on my own time).  They remind me of my mother, who loved animals, especially dogs, and whom I miss with huge aching missing. They feel comfortable and familiar, and I need some comfort and familiarity in this time of so much change in myself and in my family.

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