My father was a reader, and he read bedtime stories to us. Of course, the older children, my four sisters and I, will recollect many more occasions when my father read a bedtime story while the younger children, the remaining four, have fewer memories. Yes, there were nine of us, and the limited number of hours after work combined with the challenges in getting a houseful of children through meals, chores, and school work, made story time with our father less and less frequent. When he did have the time and energy to read aloud, however, we were mesmerized. Part actor-all salesman, he knew how to make a story come alive.
He had read very broadly when he was a child because he had been confined for long periods to hospital beds due to a handicapped leg. He was knowledgeable on the children and young adult literature available from 1928 on, and he was quick to make a recommendation.
“The black spot!” he would dramatically intone, “in the Tavern of the Black Dog, it was the blind man who delivered the the black spot!” This was enough to send shivers into me and me over into Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
“Madame Defarge…” he would growl, “Madame Defarge and her knitting.” He would lower his voice conspiratorially, daring me to discover the dark secrets of Charles Dickens’s Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities years before it was assigned in high school.
He started my sisters and me on A.A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner reading different stories aloud before we went to bed. “Poohsticks” was our collective favorite, and we demanded the tale because of the way he would read the funniest line in the story. The characters from Pooh Corner were playing a game that involved tossing sticks over one side of the bridge and running to the opposite side waiting to see whose stick would be first to float out from under a bridge. My father would read each character’s voice with only a shade of difference in voice, but he understood how to create suspense from Milne’s language:
“It’s coming!” said Pooh.
“Are you sure it’s mine?” squeaked Piglet excitedly.
“Yes, because it’s grey. A big grey one. Here it comes!
A very–big–grey—- Oh, no, it isn’t, it’s Eeyore.”
And out floated Eeyore.
He would pause there for our mutual astonishment and laughter. No matter how often he told this story, we were surprised and delighted to find that Eeyore had been bounced into the the river, and that once he was “washed” over to the riverbank, Piglet would make the obvious conclusion:
“Oh, Eeyore, you are wet!” said Piglet, feeling him.
My father read folklore to us. He read Uncle Remus’s tongue twisting dialect of B’rer Rabbit and B’rer Bear, and so we knew the allusion of “tossing someone in dat brier-patch”. We learned how to never bet against a turtle, a lesson from Remus’s Old Man Tarrypin, or the famous race between turtle and hare from Aesop. We learned about John Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe; Pecos Bill and the rattlesnake; and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
He started me on the Bobbsey Twin series, and after addicting me to Freddie, Flossie, Nan and Bert, he recommended other series: the Boxcar Children, the Hardy Boys, and finally Nancy Drew.
“How was The Sign of the Twisted Candles? Nancy’s little blue coupe?” he would ask. “The Password to Larkspur Lane?” He seemed so knowledgable, I was convinced he had read every one, not realizing the successful formula that the Carolyn Keene enterprise used was reused in every mystery. Nancy would solve the crime and discuss the solution with her father, Carson Drew; I would retell the solution to mine.
My father also gave me Little Women at the exact right age, and I am convinced that Louisa Alcott’s story was a “girl” book he had read. He was familiar with feminine concerns of the March girls perhaps because he had several older sisters himself, but he knew the details about Jo’s ambitions to be a writer, and Mr. Baer’s umbrella too well to have only a passing understanding.
I tore through the canon he knew, and soon he was floundering a bit with suggestions. One night, he tossed a copy of Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone at me after we had watched the movie on TV. At age 12, I became a reader of espionage, and we found mutual enjoyment from Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlam, and Ken Follett.
He also listened to suggestions from others, and one Christmas I found a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time before it had received the Newbery Award. He knew enough about me to know that I would love the story, and I did. I loved to read.
Kevin K. Connolly passed away in 1990 at the age of 62, leaving a void in all his children’s lives that we try to fill with stories about him. When I read “Poohsticks” aloud to my own sons, I heard his voice.
There are many gifts a father can give a child, but a love of reading is a powerful gift. On this Father’s Day, I pay tribute to the man who gave me life, and who made that life infinitely richer by making me a reader. Thank you, Dad; you were a great reader, you were an amazing father.