Tome, Sweet Tome

Nine years after we decided our family was complete, our fifth child arrived. It was a glorious and shocking event for us all. We had been in Denmark for only a brief time and barely knew the people, or spoke the language. As a family, we had been on the move for decades, travelling in quick succession between three continents. We were no strangers to upheaval, but this one tested us all. 

As I look back on those turbulent years, I see now that a love of reading kept us grounded and sane, amid the insanity of our constant moves. I did not realise this so clearly at the time. It was not until I watched our new son’s brothers and sister gather around his cot, to tell him their favourite stories and read him their old picture books, that I appreciated the important part that books had played in their young lives.

Six years earlier, we landed in Auckland one rainy September, with four very young children. We spent three months in a dilapidated rental house, with no furniture and no possessions except the ones we had carried with us – a few clothes, a travel iron, some Lego and several suitcases of books. Every day, when their father left for work, the children rushed to the bedroom where the books lived. They snuggled in sleeping bags on the carpet and I read to them. The first three Harry Potters, the stories of the Baudelaire children, poetry and rhymes, Horrible Histories, comic books and Star Wars adventures. We read whatever came to hand and, when we ran out, we read them all again.

When we could read them no more, it became our daily adventure to walk to the ferry and sail across to the city. The bookshops in Auckland were wonderful. Every assistant was friendly and endlessly tolerant of the four children as they sat reading the stock, skimming, discarding, arguing, negotiating and finally choosing the perfect book for our next day’s reading.

Three years later, we moved to Denmark at only six weeks’ notice. Our possessions went into storage again for six months. Only our books came with us. We arrived at the tail-end of an unusually hot Danish summer. We rented a house with a higgledy-piggledy garden and an unkempt orchard. When their father left for work each morning, the children and I walked to the local corner shop for a litre of ice cream. The house had no freezer and ice cream had to be consumed at once or not at all. The children rose to the challenge. We lay under the plum trees with the drone of bees in our ears, and tried a different Danish flavour every day. We shivered at the dastardly Count Olaf and rejoiced at his final downfall. We cheered for Matilda when she left her book-hating  family. We sailed with Charlie down a river of molten chocolate.

None of the children ever commented on the lack of cooking facilities that led to months of scratch meals from an old microwave. They failed to notice the lumpy, borrowed mattresses that even the cats refused to sleep on. Their memories of that summer are of ice cream, ripe plums and several hours of stories every day. 

For us, twenty seven years of marriage has meant more than thirty moves across continents and hemispheres, and five children born in three different countries. Nothing has ever stayed the same for long. Nothing, that is, except for books. Our collection ebbs and flows. Old favourites pass on, fall to bits or go out of print. New titles come to join the family, often in multiples of two or three, if they are truly special.

Ten years on,  I still see our older children read to their younger brother. I am happy to know that the love of books, which began half a world away, will be passed down to their own children and grandchildren. Books have been the anchor that has connected our present to both our past and our future, the strands of multiple experiences that have tied us together as a family. To every author out there who has created new worlds for my children to inhabit, while their own was so constantly changing, I am truly grateful. 

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10 Responses to Tome, Sweet Tome

  1. Mira says:

    What a wonderful post!

  2. lorilschafer says:

    What a lovely tribute! How wonderful to think of books as the constant in our ever-changing lives…

  3. rjwhittaker says:

    Thanks for the kind comment. For my children it may be e readers but I sincerely hope that my grandchildren, should there be any, feel as connected to their parents through literature as I hope ours did. And vice versa.

  4. Wendy says:

    Love this story!

  5. rjwhittaker says:

    Thanks, Wendy. We’ve had such a glorious spring here in Denmark that the tradition is continuing. Two hours a day in the hammock after school, reading Harry Potter. Sucking strepsils madly!

  6. Tessa Gray says:

    Lovely post. I’m a college professor and constantly remind my students how wonderful an escape books can be.

  7. rjwhittaker says:

    Thanks, Tessa. Books are unchanging in a changing world. Everyone should read Fahrenheit 451in my opinion 🙂

  8. Kay Camden says:

    I read this the other day and I’ve thought about it a lot since then. When I was little, my mom and 3 sisters would all pile in one bed and read. Now, I do it with my 2 boys. The little one isn’t quite old enough to settle down for a nice long one but someday he will and I can’t wait for that.

    I know you’ve told me what your husband does for a living but from now on I’m going to pretend he’s a spy.

  9. rjwhittaker says:

    I’m touched that you’ve thought about it since. Thank you!

    It’s a fantastic feeling when you can read long books with them, then paint pictures of the stories, build the worlds with lego, make themed meals around them etc.

    Youngest was three when we started Harry Potter and the others were 6,7 and 9. She got bits out of it but not everything. But she always recalls the cosy cuddling up and the delight of being included when she ought to have been in bed.

    Husband did actually decline that career route when offered! So, close but no cigar 🙂

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