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Childhood Memories, Repeated Through Harper Lee

Our columnist remembers how her mother read "To Kill A Mockingbird" to her when she was sick as a child--and makes a "mom rule" that she will read the last chapter aloud to her own children when they study it in eighth grade.

When I was in fourth grade, I had a horrible fever.  I missed almost a month of school, and my mother will tell you it took months off her life.  Day after day we took my temperature and called the doctor; day after day he ran blood tests, asked questions and begged my mother to calm down and wait it out.  As it turns out, it was just a fever that wouldn’t go away, but during that month, when I got sick of watching “The Dating Game,” and “Love, American Style” my mother would read to me.  I was too sick to do anything else. 

The book she chose was To Kill a Mockingbird

My mother, a former teacher and avid reader, believes in a hearty dose of classic literature.  Force-fed Moby Dick at a tender age and East of Eden as a young teen, I gave in and drank the Kool-Aid.  No harm done; I actually learned a little bit.  But that month of my mother reading Harper Lee’s one and only greatest hit gave me not just a taste for good literature but a wonderful childhood memory that in some capacity, I have tried to replicate as a parent. 

We lose the luxury of sitting and reading to our children before we know it’s gone.  There was nothing I loved more and nothing I dreaded more on a fiercely tired night than reading to my kids before bed.  The stack seemed to grow the more tired I was, but there were die-hard favorites that I remember vividly, and recently I was challenged to recite two favorites.  How come I can remember Arthur’s Birthday or Where the Wild Things Are by heart and I cannot remember what I went into the grocery store for?  I remember reading those books with very tired eyes and smelling their sparkly clean heads as they sat in my lap, night after night. My kids loved the repetition of the same books again and again; it made me crazy.  I’ve come to realize a lot of children are like that.

So when my kids got to junior high and To Kill A Mockingbird was part of the eighth grade curriculum, I made a rule.  I insisted that with each child, I would read the last chapter out loud.  It is without question, one of my favorite chapters in the world.  When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to my own eighth grade students, I always prepared them in advanced for the embarrassing stream of tears and snot that would inevitably begin to pour down my face as I read out loud.  I have cried myself silly reading the description of Boo Radley holding Scout’s hand in Jem’s bedroom with hyperventilating tears... It is one of the corniest, craziest Mom rules I have EVER created (rest assured, there are plenty) but my kids get it, and they indulge me.  And when my youngest announced at dinner this week that they were finally starting To Kill A Mockingbird, there was a great deal of teasing, all at my expense.  I’ll take it. 

I am happy to endure a gentle ribbing because with all of the technology we have, with my children texting conversations that should be spoken and all of the disconnect that comes with it, I have to take what I can get and force feed a little youth back on to them.  Every now and then, our big kids need a moment with a parent that makes them recognize they are still little; reading out loud to my very adolescent daughter might not be her first choice activity, but I know that when I'm finished, she will be left with a sentimental moment— the kind that seems few and far between these days.  I don’t regret it for a minute. They might roll their eyes at me when I turn my back and elbow each other under the table, but I know they secretly look forward to it and hopefully, think about reading Harper Lee’s classic to someone little they love one day.  

Raymond Prusak April 17, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Reading the book to both my children as they were in 4th or 5th grade are among my favorite memories as their father. Atticus Finch was an inspiration for me as a child, but now he is even more so as an adult seeking the correct temperment in dealing with mad dogs and bigots as well as sweet but quirky neighbors. I need to ask myself more often in challenging encounters: "what would Atticus Finch do"? Thank you Ms. Shulman for the memories.

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