jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Reading (to My Children)

I love books.

I love to read them. I dream about writing one someday. My shelves are covered, covered, covered with books. Because once one has acquired a book, whether as gift or purchase or that thing I couldn’t find for a year so I never returned to the library and had to pay for but then found in the trunk of my car, well, no matter, that book is now mine. Forever.

An organized bookshelf  January 2015

An organized bookshelf
January 2015

And sometimes it seems a laudable thing. A life in books.

Don't judge  January 2015

Don’t judge
January 2015

And sometimes it seems more a hoarders thing. I am weighed down by books, smothered in words I can hardly remember, pages that reek of my college library, that hunger for the oxygen that comes from actually being opened, books that pile up on my nightstand half-read or crying to be picked up.

Because truth be told, I hardly have time of my own to read anything more than a text these days. Truly. And even if I did, well a friend said it best.

“I’m reading this book, and I just hate it. It’s so good I want to stab my kids every time they interupt me. Stab them.”*

My mother always had a pile of books on her nightstand, too. She loved books, although except for my father’s Encyclopedia Britannica and Great Books of the Western World collection (neither of which was read all that much, by the way) I don’t recall there being very many books in our home, just two shelves with a bunch of engineering manuals mixed in, some cookbooks, a collection of Dr. Suess.

Books on my night stand  January 2015

Books on my nightstand
January 2015

And I don’t remember her sitting and reading. Although I don’t remember her sitting at all. Which as a mother of five, two with pretty major disabilities, plus my father’s on-going illness, I guess it’s no wonder.

And anyway, what mother has time to read?

Tonight though, I read. In fact, every night I read.

I read to my children. And while the older ones once enjoyed Sandra Boynton board books and those old Dr. Suess books my mother had re-bound and brought to me, we’ve moved on. Even my four-year-old now is knee deep in our “big reads.” Anything from the Bobbsey Twins or Boxcar Children to Junie B. Jones and anything by Andrew Clemens (who writes so beautifully, it makes me want to be a better writer.)

I have such voices and accents. Junie B. is always a kvetching Jewish grandma from Brooklyn while anyone remotely magical sounds like a drunk Irishman.

We are nearing the end of Mandy right now, a book by Julie Andrews Edwards. And as amazing an actress and singer as she is, I have to say, I think she’s almost that good an author.

Somehow these very slow passages describing various English flowers, cottage stonework, woodland critters, they come so very magically alive in my son’s bed, as my four cuddle around me, that we are all riveted. Breathing slows. Our bodies become still in the here and now as our five spirits are transported away to this other world. At the end of each hefty chapter punctuated with the illustration of the little bunny, I send them off to their respective beds.

And then, once I’ve read one board book to my four-year-old, read a “Sight Words” mini-book with one six-year-old (all reading skills, no plot), and sung a lullaby to the other six-year-old (who can read her own damn books, trust me), I sneak back to my seven-year-old’s room for the really heavy stuff.

He’d found 1984 on a bookshelf a few months ago and begun to read it. George Orwell’s 1984? The dystopian nightmare? Did I mention he’s seven? And so, after I slogged through Chapter 1 with him and realized that I could not read such epically ugly things before bed, we got The Giver by Lois Lowry. Which was beautiful, and sad, and dystopian, and mysterious. He liked it.

Our amazing children’s librarian, aghast at 1984, had recommended The Giver to us, and then, knowing me like she does, she recommended Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper.

It’s the story of an eleven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who cannot speak on her own, but her story is told in the first person here. And oh, what a story. We pulled for her and stayed up later than we should reading just one more chapter, one more chapter, one more.

And tonight, we finished it.

I’ll admit it, I cried a little. His eyes may have clouded up. Actually this sweetly powerful book has been a bit of a tearfest.

I cannot imagine having this book to read as a child, or to have had it read to me. It would have transported me. To have someone write about being a person with disabilities when I lived in a house full of people with disabilities? Spectacular.

I remember reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I was maybe eleven or twelve myself, home sick with a stomach bug and so I’d slept on the floor of the bathroom, curled up on our pink bath mat, sipping flat Coke, covered in towels.

I remember finishing the book all by myself and gazing up at the underside of the pink porcelain sinks and formica countertop. That memory is so vivid.

In Flowers for Algernon someone had written words that lifted me out of that house of chittering televisions and incessant screeching, and I was seeing my childhood, and my retarded brother Butchie, from a totally different place. It flipped everything upside down for me.

Butchie mixed media by Jennifer Groeber

mixed media (including the book, Flowers for Algernon)
by Jennifer Groeber

Because books do that.

Nowadays at a cocktail party or playdate I’m caught off guard when asked if I’ve read anything good lately. They mean, have I read the new Pulitzer-winning novel? And of course, I have not.

I’m confident that someday I’ll read things of my own choosing again. I’m even (sort of) confident I’ll (try to) write that book of my own, too. Really.

But for now I’m just so glad to be going on these journeys with my children, taking them with me over the garden wall or rolling into my classroom strapped in my wheelchair, speechless.

Reading  January 2015

January 2015

“I’m surrounded by thousands of words. Maybe millions…

Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes- each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.”

~From the first page of Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper


*I may be either paraphrasing or projecting here, depending on whether you’re a therapist or an English teacher.

19 comments on “Reading (to My Children)

  1. kellylmckenzie
    January 20, 2015

    Lovely. Thank you for including photos. I m not feeling so bad about my overflowing blanket box that doubles as a coffee table. When the gas man came to turn on the gas last year he noticed the pile through the window and said “someone likes to read.” We all do. My son was hooked from infancy. He’s my go to guy now for books that’ll stretch me. My daughter got hooked in grade 8 when the class read the Boy In The Striped Pajamas. If you’ve not read it, do. So moving and well written.

    • jgroeber
      January 21, 2015

      I knew that crazy bookshelf would make someone breathe a sigh of relief. I swear I clean it all up about once a week, but to no avail. And now I must check out the Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I sent my son to school with an assignment- The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and a Wrinkle in Time (I pointed at my forehead and my watch to help him remember that one. Ha!) for our next adventures.
      Always love seeing you here. Thanks for popping by!

  2. lingeringvisions by Dawn
    January 20, 2015

    I think it is okay to say what you are reading even if it is Piggie Pie (one of my favorites…boy oh boy could I do voices for that one!), because we have all been there. Actually I am proud to say I have been there.

    • jgroeber
      January 21, 2015

      Piggie Pie?! Now that’s one I’ve never heard of. And I promise to check it out. The kids I babysat when I was in high school still holler in falsetto, “Hell-ooooooo, Miss Pollie!” when they see me and they’re my age now! Apparently I was even doing voices then! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Gayle Moore-Morrans
    January 20, 2015

    What an inspiring post, Jen. Like you, I have always been a book worm and soaked up anything I could get my hands on as a child. My favourite part of school was going to the library and getting a new book recommendation from Miss Kellington, the volunteer librarian. She had me reading Tolstoy in high school and I loved it, loved it, loved it. I also have such pleasant memories of reading to my children when they were young. And I am so proud of my daughter who is now a teacher-librarian and loves reading to her students at school and to her children at home. Alas, my son just never caught the reading bug, although he loved being read to. I remember him coming home one day and “complaining” (mind you) that we were the only family of all his friends who had a library in every room, even the bathrooms! I told him he should be bragging about that instead of complaining!

    • jgroeber
      January 21, 2015

      How those librarians influence us! And what a treat that your daughter has become one. I laughed when I read “even in the bathroom” about your ever-expanding library. Then I went into my own bathroom and saw what you meant. Ha! You’ve given me hope that I may be able to hand down this love of books after all, although I know I will miss these days of laying with my children and reading books together. So good to see you here!

  4. Matt
    January 21, 2015

    I need to read more-advanced books to my son.

    You’ve sold me.

    Another beautiful post. I’ll look forward to buying and reading that book, Jen.

    • jgroeber
      January 21, 2015

      Honestly, reading anything at all pretty much rocks. We’ve read a ton of the Jack and Annie books (a bit repetitive, but great history stuff), all the Ramona books (Henry Huggins, too!), all the A.A. Milne books and even the Bailey School kids books, which are well-written and the kids love, but not-so-much with the cultural punch. Charlotte’s Web. Sigh. So many good ones! Just thinking about it makes me realize that I may run out of time before we can read all the really good ones. (These days flash by all too fast.)
      Thank you for your kind words.

  5. Burns the Fire
    January 21, 2015

    That was pure pleasure to read. I look forward to the book. xo

    • jgroeber
      January 21, 2015

      Ha! I can’t help but wonder what your childhood favorite was, oh literary lovely. Do tell. I’ve realized that my list is growing and I need to read them all to the kids now, now, now, before it’s too late.

      • Burns the Fire
        January 22, 2015

        It’s never too late for a good book, which I have no doubt you are instilling in them.

        Mmm… let’s see… I was a big Dr. Seuss fan, and of course, Charlie Brown, Winnie the Pooh, and Where the Wild Things Are. I did like fairy tales.. and vaguely remember the biography of Hans Christian Anderson for kids. I don’t think the text was great but the artwork had such pathos, I still remember the drawing of Han’s large, protruding nose on his little boy/old man face. They were so poor and someone, maybe his father, was sick and died. I also loved Little Women, mostly because I loved the independent, kinda feminist writer, Jo(sephine).

  6. Jay
    January 23, 2015

    I think reading time is great bonding time. When else do you sit so quietly, so close and cuddly, and enjoy the same thing at the same time? What magic.

    • jgroeber
      January 29, 2015

      Right? Tonight two of them opted to sneak off and read some optical illusion book together rather than going through the wardrobe to Narnia. I felt so let down. They came back, though, thank goodness.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  7. talesfromthemotherland
    January 24, 2015

    Oh how my books must feel neglected too… some I’ve kept for so long, imagining that I will share them (many I have), though so many have just languished on my shelves for… decades. I just gave a bunch of children’s books away to 3 little boys I love. They were thrilled. I kept our treasured ones, for my grandchildren… the first of which will come this summer. 😉 There, that is breaking news. I am over the moon, at the idea of having a little person to hold and read to. Your piece has just gotten me even more inspired! xo

    • jgroeber
      January 29, 2015

      WHAT?! How exciting is that, right? You couldn’t possibly be a (shhhhhh…) grandmother? Oh, sending good wishes and happy thoughts your way. We should all be young enough to enjoy our second generation.
      Start shopping now! Books, onesies, Melissa & Doug wooden toys, very soft blankets. Yay!

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