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?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.