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