Reading, part I: Wonder

BloomKatie, nine-years old, is reading her first novel, Bloom by Nicola Skinner. She reads it aloud to me, a chapter a night before she goes to bed. We’re almost 90 pages into this delightful 350-page book about a play-by-the-rules girl who finds a packet of magic seeds that turn her world upside down.

A few nights ago, Katie stopped reading mid-sentence and turned to me with a look of wonder and bliss on her face. ‘I can really see all the people and places’, she proclaimed. ‘Can you?’

I got a lump in my throat. You’ve got it, I thought to myself. You’ve cracked the joy of reading, words creating entire worlds in your imagination of people and lives and places.

She’s read before, of course, but short books that can be read in one sitting and that don’t involve the immersion of the imagination that comes with reading a lengthy novel. She’s invested in the world of this book far more than she’s been invested in any story she’d read before.

What particularly made me emotional about this epiphany of Katie’s the other night is that she’s long held this misconception that she’s ‘bad at reading’ or ‘not very good at reading’. These are her own descriptions of her reading ability and, try as I might to dispel them, they have persisted. It’s probably younger sister syndrome (if such a thing exists). Lily, who is only 17 months older than Katie, was an early reader, and by the time she was the age that Katie is now, she had read all but two of the Harry Potter novels, most of the Narnia series, as well as a huge number of Jacqueline Wilson books (more on all of this next week). Lily is a voracious reader with very particular tastes and has been reading beyond her age level (if such a thing exists, which I doubt) for a long time. Katie, by her own comparison, is ‘not very good at reading’.

My past attempts to instill confidence in Katie’s reading ability have fallen short. She simply wasn’t ready. Her frequent mistakes, her slow reading pace and her lack of understanding frustrated her and deterred her from wanting to read more.

But something about this book has flicked a switch. She bought it herself, for one thing, choosing it and paying for it with her own money at Easons when we were passing through Cavan town earlier in the summer. Reading it every night, she has become highly invested in the characters and in the place. She is the one dragging me to her bedroom each night so she can read the next chapter.

At first, she read slowly, stumbling over words and ignoring punctuation. But chapter-by-chapter, her reading speed has increased, her word recognition has improved remarkably, her ability to understand new words based on context or pre-existing knowledge of similar words has improved, and she now reads with correct intonation and timing (most of the time). Her confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. Listening to her read is a joy. Her joy in reading is a joy.

She’s now got a pile of books on her desk, stacked in order of what she wants to read next. If this carries on, we’re in for a cozy winter ahead filled with adventures of the imagination.

Productive procrastination and the tug of memory

The editing assignment I’m working on at the moment is one of the most interesting, and biggest, I’ve had in the three years I’ve worked as an academic editor. Each new editing assignment, written by academics in China, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere, is a new and fascinating learning experience for me. But the one I’m currently working on is particularly enjoyable because it is closest to my own research interests and the suggestions I have made to the authors come from my own specific background as an environmental anthropologist, rather than from my usually broader background as a social scientist at the interstices of culture and nature. This week’s assignment is about intangible cultural heritage, about the conservation and transmission of knowledge, skill and memory.

However, despite my enjoyment of this current assignment, I find myself procrastinating. Having done the washing up after lunch today I knew I should return to my office and sit down for an afternoon of editing. Instead, I decided on the spur of the moment to make a coffee cake. I’ve never made a coffee cake before, but I have a hand-written recipe in the little recipe book I’ve been adding to and baking from for years.

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My ‘not as good as Cissie’s’ coffee cake

I’ve been craving coffee cake for weeks, probably since the end of March and what would have been my father’s 78th birthday. You see, for me, coffee cake is intimately and indelibly tied up with memories of my father and my aunt Cissie, Daddy’s oldest sister. Coffee cake does not exist in my memory and my imagination independent of those two very important people in my life.

Until I was five years old, I was the only child in a small house in rural Ireland that was home to my mother and father, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal aunt, Cissie. My uncle Tom was there most days too and each weekend, my cousins Sean, Declan and Colette and my aunt Lillie were there too. I grew up in a house filled with love and jokes and an obsession with Gaelic football. I never once questioned my place in that wonderful setting. I was grounded and protected and loved. When I was five years old, my baby sister was added to the mix, and when I was six, my beloved aunt Cissie died of breast cancer.

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Cissie and me on the lawn in Ballygibbon, summer 1974.

Cissie was 18 or 19 years older than my father, who was the baby in a family of eight children that spanned a 22-year range. They all grew up in that house, as had my grandfather before them, who had died on my father’s first birthday. Cissie was the third oldest in the family, and the oldest girl. In what would be the final years of her life (although none of us could ever have imagined that someone so full of life could die so young), and her most important years from my young perspective, she worked as a housekeeper for a country doctor. Dr. Hill was herself an amazing woman, family doctor to all of us and a woman who had gone to medical school in Ireland in what must have been the 1930s. She and her husband, Ger, who was confined to a wheelchair, lived in a big bright orange farmhouse up a long avenue, a couple of miles from my house. Cissie worked in the kitchen, cooked the meals, baked, helped with Ger and slept in the house a couple of nights a week. I have very strong memories of sleeping in Cissie’s bed in her room at Dr. Hill’s house once and feeling simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the vastness of the house.

Back home in our little two-bedroom, five-person house, I shared a bed with Cissie and we, in turn, shared a room with my grandmother. When I go home to Ballygibbon now I can’t imagine how or where we fit two large old beds, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers in that room. But, somehow, we did (maybe the confined space prepared me for life on a boat).

Cissie’s baking was legendary. She baked all the time and everything was delicious. Cakes, tarts, desserts, she made them all. My father, despite hating coffee, loved his big sister’s coffee cake. And, despite being in his mid-30s in the mid-1970s, when I was a little girl, he was still Cissie’s adored baby brother, Cinn-bán Paddy, blond-headed Paddy, and she indulged and cultivated his sweet tooth at every opportunity.

It would be incorrect to say Daddy loved coffee cake. He loved Cissie’s coffee cake. After she died, in 1979, at a time when I was too young to appreciate the grief of those around me, he rarely ate coffee cake again. On those rare occasions when he conceded to try a slice of coffee cake, his response was always the same, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. Coffee cake never being as good as Cissie’s became, and still is, a running family joke.

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With my parents and sister at Dublin Zoo on the day of my First Communion, May 1980, less than a year after Cissie’s death.

My father died fourteen and a half years ago. Although my grief is triggered in often odd and unexpected ways, twice a year, on the anniversaries of his birth (March) and his death (September) I am usually guaranteed to feel his absence particularly acutely. This year I was less sad than usual, but was overcome by an almost madness-inducing craving not only to eat coffee cake, but to bake coffee cake. For weeks the stars have failed to align – not enough eggs in the house one day, not enough of the right type of flour the next, the gas bottle too close to empty to chance baking in the oven. But the craving to make and eat coffee cake never went away.

This morning, I took a mid-morning break from editing, as I had promised Katie I would play padel with her. Padel is a game that’s very similar to tennis, but played on a court that’s some way similar to both a squash and a real tennis court. Katie seems to be a natural at most sports and as we hit the ball back and forth across the padel net, I told her (not for the first time) how much Grandad Pat would have adored her and about all the sports they could have played together. Talking like that set me off and I had to take a little break from padel while my eight-year old daughter comforted me.

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Katie approved!

So, with my head full of ideas of intangible cultural heritage, of memory and skill and the transmission of knowledge, and with my heart full of my long-lost loved ones, my procrastination was inevitable, as I took my recipe book from its shelf. So, I’ve made a coffee cake for the first time for my blond-haired girls, and the cycle of intangible culture, love and belonging goes on.

Would Daddy like the coffee cake I’ve made? Although he would never say so, for fear of hurting my feelings, I’m sure inside he’d be thinking, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. And I would have to agree!

 

P.S. Apologies to my mother, sister and any other family members who I have made cry by bringing back these happy memories. We’re a sappy bunch.