Memory of First Reads

Note from Leslie: Clicking on colored text will allow you to discover more about that item!

Before books, listening to Prokofiev's "Peter And the Wolf" was everything!
Before books, listening to Prokofiev’s “Peter And the Wolf” was everything!

One of my early memories is of receiving books in the mail beginning the year prior to entering kindergarten. I’m not sure if there were pre-school programs back in those days. My family—-including parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and older cousins were my pre-school because that’s just how it was done with us: home was my first school and family were my first teachers. They schooled me to say “please,” “thank you,” “yes ma’am”, and “no sir;” how to sing the alphabet song, and how to spell my name. They showed me how to make my bed, how to tie my shoes, and how to chew food with my mouth closed.

The front door of our home had a thick metal chute that was just low enough for me to play imaginary spy games by myself. I loved it because it was something I could open and shut with my hands, a small window I could peek through to see storyboard slivers of outdoor life: squirrels scampering and seasonal colors changing; and parts of adult bodies ascending or descending the steps to our porch.

“Leslie, you have to move so I can open the door.” my mother had to say often. Back then I was all about the business of locating small and sometimes secret places where I could curl, fold, sit, flatten and hide my body. Sometimes I mashed myself in the little corner behind the opened door while Mommy welcomed visitors inside. I hoped that whomever had just rung the doorbell would be amazed to find my impish body within trip-and-fall distance.

“Did you see me looking at you through there?” I pointed to the mail chute. If the visitor looked aghast and said “No!” I was immensely satisfied. Maybe there was a bit of “Felix the Cat” as an influence—-he was one of my favorite cartoon characters, with his magic bag of tricks.

Other days I played with the mail chute just to hear the hinges squeak and the portal’s harsh clamp shut as I yanked my fingers out of the way. Crayons, small toys, and pieces of sugary yellow and orange “candy-corn” could be shoved through there for one of my parents or someone else to find or step on accidentally.

“What is all this shit doing here?” my father murmured, giving me a warning glance. There were places where crayons, small toys, and pieces of candy belonged but on the ground between the front door and screen door wasn’t one of those places. Daddy’s use of the word “shit” didn’t belong hanging in the air between us, either. We eyeballed each other. You don’t tell on me and I won’t tell on you.

Squeak-bang!
A small slosh of envelopes and maybe a Better Homes & Garden magazine fell through the mail chute with a papery rustle and thud. Had I always been sensitive to sound or was it because the only record album in the house that belonged to me was “Peter and the Wolf”? From the beginning I was mesmerized by the kettledrums and oboe sounds of hunters and ducks in the forest and Sean Connery’s narration transporting me to an imagined (and scary) world that I saw through my ears.

Squeak-bang!
A small collection of envelopes and possibly an issue of Better Homes & Gardens magazine fell through the mail chute with a whoosh of outdoor air. My mouth was full of peanut butter, jelly, and bread as my mother left the kitchen to collect the mail. Then I heard her singing my name.

“Something came in the mail for you, today!”
I couldn’t imagine what. I liked good things to eat, toys, tulips, and bugs, but I had never seen any of these things pressed flat into an envelope, before. Some unchewed sandwich lodged itself in my throat as I made a beeline for the front door, where my mother handed me a brown cardboard package. I coughed.

I thought she just wanted me to hold it.
“Do you see where it says your name?” This neat box with unfathomable script on it said my name? Where?
But then I saw it: L – E – S – L – I – E on a white label.
“Can you read your name?” my mother encouraged. I could feel her attention as I peered at my name, so visually different from my parents’ careful printing on a piece of unlined white paper or my own chicken-scratch imitations. Keeping a piece of paper still while gripping a pencil or a crayon to draw marks that were so specific required all of my concentration and
tongue pressed into teeth and
into the wet membrane texture of inner cheek
enough concentration to vacuum
my lips together

“Come here.” Mommy beckoned me to sit beside her on the bottom three steps which led to our upstairs where my sister was napping in her crib. Daddy was at his work at the Huber Avenue Foundry. No radio or television blared. Just me and Mommy breathing in the tiny vestibule.
“Show me your name.” I pointed to the starchy letters in courier script. Then my mother explained to me how the other letters and numbers on the label helped the mailman know whose house the mail should be delivered to.

I don’t remember understanding everything so much as I remember my mother’s index finger pointing to various places on the surface of the package. Her smell of Jergen’s lotion and breakfast cereal, her sounds of teaching and scolding, made me feel safe. In those early years her tenderness was so fresh.

So all of this lettering meant something, had an identifying purpose. I stashed the knowledge with other worded expressions of import that I knew, such as bed time prayers and the “Jesus Wept” or “God is Good” I uttered with eyes squeezed shut before biting down on my fried chicken drumstick. Rice and gravy.

“Do you want me to help you open it?” Mommy asked. I nodded my head. I may have forgotten that opening the package was the objective. I was still marveling at the postman’s important work. Who else knew there was a little brown girl named Leslie who lived at my house?

As Mommy pried apart the corners of cardboard that had been glued together she explained that mail was personal. “Daddy doesn’t open mail that says my name and I only open mail that says his name if he asks me to. We have to respect each other’s things.”

When she was finished showing me how much she respected what was mine by not tearing the box open all wild and willy-nilly with her hands and teeth like the tasmanian devil we saw that what lay inside was a book.

an early favorite
an early favorite

While I don’t remember the title of that first book I do know that by that same time in the following year I was the owner of 12 books – having received one book in the mail each month in a package with my name typed importantly on the label. Like most children I recall loving being read the same stories over and over and over again, especially if they rhymed. And no other moments in time matched the sequestered bubble of having my mother all to myself while reading a book.
****
My fondest early reads included Hans Augusto and Margret Rey’s Curious George books, and anything by Dr. Seuss. Come Over to My House was a huge favorite from that groundbreaking personal library of 12 books, but I was an adult before I learned that Theo LeSieg and Dr. Seuss were the same person!

After being introduced to this issue of Golden Legacy Illustrated History Magazine, I turned my nose up at Dick & Jane.
After being introduced to this issue of Golden Legacy Illustrated History Magazine, I turned my nose up at Dick & Jane.

When I was in the first grade, my mother rightly anticipated that my early primer would not include children and families of color. She gave me Golden Legacy Illustrated History books to supplement my school reading. After that I turned my nose up at Dick & Jane. In Mark Mancini’s “15 Fun Facts About Dick and Jane” for Mental Floss I was surprised to learn that the Dick & Jane books introduced an African-American family in 1964.

What early reading memories do you have?

16 Comments

  1. I enjoyed pictures in magazines mostly. Being the youngest foster child in the clan, I got hand me downs from my older foster sisters. They read magazines like Ebony and Jet. My beloved foster Mother Helen Ruth enjoyed Reader’s Digest, so I got her discards. As a family we read the Watchtower and Awake mainly; which included reading corresponding scriptures in our green Jehovah Witness bibles.

    Later, I would fall in love with Nancy Drew, which is why today I still love mystery books, TV and movies the same. I also fell in love with James Baldwin who wrote some wonderful short stories. There were others who also did shorts proud, but I can’t remember their names right now. Thanks for prompting me to remember some of my childhood favorites. In our home it was all about the reading exercise. The people we read about were neither negro or white. We were taught/encouraged to love people…period!

  2. Leslie,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it, it was so much like visiting with you…. Your writing is comforting, loving and of course always with an anticipatory air….I love re-living, being in memory with you, in the era, in the living past as now and future. This long memory is critical to and for a writer especially. So, here are my childhood memories. I start as a small child, Bible reading with my grandmother in old dusty –hand built by grandpa — house, mostly in her bedroom-living room
    Then Sunday school. From there, no books at home, we were in the North by the time I was 3 years old. So I don’t remember much reading until kindergarten. Then the rush, father and mother anxiety about having a kid who can’t read, that fear was felt. So I made sure I could read. My parents got me grade level Highlight Mag, monthly books through a school based book program Reading Readiness–Sampson & Pattengill elementary schools–and of course newspapers (1950/early 1960s): Michigan Chronicle, Detroit Times, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. So I entered the first grade a politically astute Race Woman, lol. My favorite books were the Tom, Betty and Susan, with Flip the dog and mom and dad and of course, the chocolate cake after every dinner.

    Love you for inviting us to share our reflections.

    Kaleema Hasan

    1. Oh Kaleema! I am so pleased that you visited folklore & literacy to read and reminisce with me. Reading your reflections put me in the mind of LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s novel, Jam On The Vine. I think because you talk about how reading newspapers as a young person made “a politically astute Race Woman” of you! In Jam On The Vine, a young black girl named Ivoe Williams covets reading newspapers and books, and, cultivating that, goes on to become a journalist, anti-lynching activist, and newspaper publisher in the early 1900s.

      I have always been an admirer of your work and it means a lot to me to have you read mine. Hugs & kisses to You!

  3. I adore your storytelling, Leslie. Such beautiful memories. I love the touches of mischief and the eyeballing scene. 😉

    You’ve reminded me of my childhood reading years. Thank you. Keep on telling your stories.

    P. S. I tried to subscribe, using my personal email address, but it didn’t accept it. I think it’s because it was linked to my old WordPress.com account.

    1. Oh, Nadine, one of my writing comrades! Thank you for stopping by to read and leave such encouraging feedback. I am curious about your childhood reading years as well.

      Uh oh! you know I am the IT person of this self-hosted site, right? Thank you for the heads-up; I’ll see what I can do to make sure you’re on my subscriber list.:)

  4. Leslie, you share your delight so beautifully that it touches my heart. You share knowledge, too — I didn’t know LeSieg and Seuss were the same person until you told me! Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Margaret. As I was writing this post I realized how blessed I am to have such memories. Were you read to as child? How did you come to storytelling and reading?

      1. You’re welcome, Leslie. Yes, I was read to as a child. I have some of my earliest books with my name on them — in my mother’s writing. Hooray for those hard covers, by the way, as younger paperbacks wither away. As for coming to reading, I don’t remember not doing it! I don’t know whether that’s a measure of how early I started or how impossible it is to remember something once your frame of reference changes.

  5. After the subscription to “Highlights for Children” and the requisite Dr. Seuss books – I could only enjoy “hop on pop” so many times – I was happy to graduate to Nancy Drew mysteries by post. I devoured them the same day they arrived. I was enamored by her independence, lack of fear, and sense of adventure! Mom told me ND books weren’t available at school (I should research to see if that’s true). Les – thanks for the walk down memory lane (I thought we were the only family with that Peter and the Wolf album!).

    1. Valeria! You had “Peter and the Wolf,” too? Snap! Thank you for the reverse-walk down memory lane by bringing up “Highlights For Children,” Hop on Pop (Lol!), and Nancy Drew. Whew! You received new ND books in the mail? What a kick! All of the copies I read were purchased second-hand from garage sales and flea markets. Thank you for leaving comments.

  6. Lol! That part when your dad said shit “You don’t tell on me and I won’t tell on you.” made me think of a few days ago when I reminded my dad that he used to say shit so much when my lil bro was a toddler that he started to say it too. Apparently neither one of them remembers that.

    Early reading memories…I remember my mom giving me a Mother Goose book and a Cinderella book…Hmm, I don’t recall being read to, only of receiving books.

    1. Zezee- what’s wrong with your dad and your brother that they don’t remember these things! -lol. Mother Goose! Right! How many generations of children have had those rhymes as their introduction to stories?

      1. Bobbsey Twins comes to mind. I remember purchasing it from the ten-cent store, uptown in Griffin, GA. Another is The Sad-Faced Boy, by Arna Bontemps.
        We were denied membership at the local library in Griffin. But, ah hah, enter good parents–Mama took me to a Methodist Church which had loads of books in the basement. So many adults refused to take on the victim’s role in those days.
        Thank you, God, for Mama and Daddy….

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