When I was three-years-old I became one of the designated entertainers for my six-year-old cousin Rose who’d been stricken with polio. I had heard my mother and others talk about how lucky it was that Rose didn’t die. I wasn’t sure what die meant, but the way my aunt and mother talked about Rose dying didn’t sound good. She lay in bed, motionless. I sat in a chair next to her bed, trying to think of things to say that would interest her or make her laugh. I wasn’t very good at telling jokes and half the time I couldn’t remember the punchline. This made her mad. She told me I needed to learn to tell jokes but I had no idea how to do this. Since I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and was tired of sitting, I left the bedroom and went into the kitchen where my mother and aunt were drinking coffee. My aunt told me to go back, that Rose needed company. When I stood there, unwilling to leave the kitchen, my mother scolded me. “Nancy, you’re always telling stories, go back and tell Rose a story.”
I walked to the bedroom as slowly as I could, hoping she’d be asleep, but she was awake, waiting for me. I told a few stories as best I could but Rose soon let me know she was bored with my stories. “Read to me,” she said in a voice that frightened me.
“I don’t know how to read,” I admitted, scared of what she’d say.
She looked angry and made a terrifying chest noise. It sounded like what people described when they talked about her dying. When she caught her breath she said, “Reading is easy. I’ll teach you.”
I don’t remember how she taught me, but I was desperate to learn as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to be the one who made her die.
I must have learned fast enough and well enough to suit her, because when I started reading, she stopped complaining about my reading. The only problem was that sometimes I didn’t know a word and stumbled. Disapproving of my mistake, she made the horrible chest noises that petrified me. I panicked. What would they do to me if my cousin died while I was reading to her? The sounds she made when I mispronounced a word scared me so much, the next time I didn’t know a word, I made one up. Since she couldn’t see the book, she didn’t know the difference. I began to enjoy reading to her, making up half of what I read. No mistakes. No terrible chest sounds. No die. Big relief.
How did you learn to read?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.