“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” — James Baldwin
Just after I turned 6 years old, I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. It would change me in such radical and substantial ways that I would never again be the same person. What was this fateful and momentous event?
I learned to read.
After completing many a phonics worksheet, I clearly recall the moment I first looked at Dick and Jane in Miss Taggart’s first-grade class at Valley Grove Elementary School and could actually sound out the words “Spot” and ”Puff.” From that day forward, the perimeters of my little-girl world expanded exponentially.
As Betty Smith wrote in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, “The world was hers for the reading.” Truer words were never spoken.
I learned that there were people and places and cultures and experiences out there that I had never dreamed of before. As I absorbed what I read about them, my childhood universe grew both larger and smaller. It increased because I learned there was so much more out there than just the simple countryside of my Wheeling childhood. At the same time, it made me feel more connected to the world outside myself, which forced me to look at others with growing benevolence and understanding. Once you start seeing the world around you in that way, I don’t know how you can help but feel like it’s somehow shrunken considerably.
Reading has been a part of my life since the day I was born. Some of my very earliest treasured memories are of being read aloud to by my parents. Mom often chose Dr.Seuss’s ABC, The Little Engine That Could or Jolly Jingles. Dad preferred The Poky Little Puppy and during December, The Night Before Christmas. In recent years, I purchased a recordable version of that holiday classic and asked my 85-year-old dad to record it in his voice so I could keep our beloved tradition alive for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
After mastering Dick and Jane, I quickly moved on to other books. So many books, so little time! A few of my favorites were the Trixie Belden teenage detective series featuring Trixie, her sheltered best friend Honey and the rest of the Bob-Whites of the Glen. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I quickly devoured the first 16 books of this series, which immediately caused her to drive me into town to obtain my first library card.
At that time, the Ohio County Public Library was located at 2100 Market St. in Center Wheeling, but it wasn’t long until it moved to its present location on 16th Street. Between those two locations and the traveling bookmobile that sometimes wound its way up the gravel back road to our school, I was able to satisfy both my growing appetite for reading and the limits of my parents’ checkbook.
Other childhood favorites I remember are the All-of-a-Kind Family series, where I first learned about life in a big city and Jewish religious customs. I also loved the many adventures of Pippi Longstocking, who made me a little less self-conscious about my own freckles. Ramona Quimby of Ramona the Pest fame often had trouble sitting still in school like I did, which endeared her to third-grade me. Another favorite tale was that of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from The JungleBook. His courage in protecting his human boy and his family motto of “Run and find out!” made me want to take in a wayward mongoose of my own. I found it difficult to put down a really good book and would often read at the dinner table or under my bedspread with a flashlight long after Mom had made me turn off the lights. The only place I didn’t read was in the car — doing so was a surefire way to make me nauseated.
I also remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Ball, reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to us, chapter by chapter. Unlike Ramona Quimby, I sat perfectly immobile during these reading sessions, enthralled by the kind, clever spider who was both a true friend and a good writer. I would give anyone who whispered or fidgeted during story time the old side-eye, hoping that if we were collectively attentive, Mrs. Ball would reward our good behavior by reading a second chapter that day.
My parents encouraged my reading habits and were always happy to foster my interests and curiosity. Most of the time, however, I “didn’t know what I didn’t know,” which meant I sometimes didn’t even have a grasp on what I wanted to learn about next. My paternal grandmother, an elementary school teacher herself, often sent me careening down a rabbit hole of enlightenment the way she did when she introduced me to Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank. The knowledge I gained from reading books about these two brave women led me to learn more about the Holocaust and World War II. Other subjects of my fascination that have carried over to my adult years are the sinking and subsequent discovery of the Titanic, pregnancy/childbirth and domestic animal husbandry.
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By the time I entered high school, I had discovered Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe and Danielle Steel. For many years, I couldn’t imagine a more tender love story than the one Steel put forth in The Promise. Other books that made me stop and think long and hard about the human condition were Flowers for Algernon, Jaws, Harvest Home, Thinner and Salem’s Lot. Ned, my college beau, introduced me to Watership Down and gave me an inscribed copy for my 18th birthday. It would become the first meaningful book gifted to me as an adult as well as the reason that I always jot a sentence of dedication inside books that I give as presents.
Also, while in high school and college, I began to recognize and develop my writing ability. My interest in writing began in elementary school when I won an essay contest (first prize: Hires root beer floats for all of us in Miss Miller’s class!) and also penned my first poem (about Pilgrims and Thanksgiving.) My voracious reading habit taught me to take note of delicious word combinations and sentence structures. I’m sure there are many readers who aren’t writers, but there can’t be many successful writers who aren’t readers.
“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” — Fran Lebowitz
Before I knew it, I had babies of my own. Reading before naps and bedtime became a cherished everyday ritual. Sometimes we would walk to the Hildebrand Memorial Library on North 17th Street near our home in Warwood. This tiny gem was a branch of the Ohio County Public Library and, prior to its closure in 2003, was located in the basement of the First West Virginia Bank building. Some best-loved books from those days of reading to my kids are the Berenstain Bears books, Hazel’s Amazing Mother, Hildegard Sings, Love You Forever and Where the Wild Things Are. The refrains of “I’ll eat you up, I love you so!” and “As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be” will always make me tear up with sweet memories of rocking my babies to sleep.
I read stories with lessons to my kids in order to reinforce the values I was trying to teach them. Stories have a way of making the intangible more palpable for all of us, especially for children in their formative years. Books can be powerful tools that help build character and foster empathy. For as Oscar Wilde once said, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” I’ve always tried to read, then think, then speak — in that order. And I hope I’ve taught my children to do the same.
As my babies grew into young adults, I had more time to focus on my own reading once again. I was introduced by fellow readers to the Clan of the Cave Bear series and the Outlander books. Another title that made my all-time favorites list years ago is The Art of Racing in the Rain. I adore that book and have recently seen trailers for the movie of the same name that’s set to hit theaters next month. While I do plan to see it, it’s been my lifelong experience that the book is always better than its movie version. For me, bringing scenes and characters to life in my own fervid imagination is infinitely better than watching someone else’s on-screen interpretation of them.
Much like life itself, a beloved book is both a journey and a destination. Once you’ve consumed its contents, a book becomes part of your soul; the wisdom and emotions conveyed are forever entwined in the very fibers of your being. I always finish a good read with a vague sense of mourning for the characters who have become “friends” during the time it took me to digest the chapters. I once read a quote that says someone who reads lives a thousand lives before he dies, but the person who doesn’t read lives only one. If that’s the case, I’ve lived the equivalent of a hundred eons. When the time finally comes for me to leave this world for the next, I can only hope to be remembered as fondly as Charlotte the spider.
• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.