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Drawing Comfort from Shared Reading

I last saw my eldest son Rory (aged twenty-three) in person at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It was February, and he was performing in the opening event for the exhibit “Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent.” Rory’s role was to read McKeller’s letters as part of a multifaceted performance of dance and music. As I watched my son hold his own amongst world-class pianists, singers, and dancers, I had moments of seeing his child-self within his adult face and form and of hearing his boyish voice sounding beneath the rich baritone that seems to come from the soles of his feet, never mind his chest. 

“He’s still in there,” I thought, not in a spirit of infantilizing my grown-up son but of marveling at how the child I’d nurtured and fed, read to and cheered on, had grown into a man living out his dreams. 

And then COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under Rory, as it did so many others. Though he’s remained physically healthy, the disruption of the post-college life he loved and worked hard to build has taken an emotional toll. We stayed in close touch while I hunkered down at home across the state with my husband and four of my other kids, and I sent him care packages with books he couldn’t bring his spinning mind to read. Then, in early June, Rory texted in a state of raw need and vulnerability provoked by the wave of racialized violence coinciding with the pandemic. He’d participated in two protests following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police and was overcome by anger, sadness, fear, and despair. At one point he mentioned something that brought him comfort, saying, “I took a nap today and had a dream that you were reading a bedtime story to me.” 

We quickly switched to FaceTime, and I pulled some of his childhood books from my shelves to read aloud. Mindful of Rory’s immediate need to feel safe and nurtured as a young Black man, I began with a poem I’d read to him countless times when he was little because of how it evoked my hopes for him as a Black child: Walter Dean Myers’s “Prayer” from Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse.

Shout my name to the angels
Sing my song to the skies
Anoint my ears with wisdom
Let beauty fill my eyes 

For I am dark and precious 
And have such gifts to give
Sweet joy, sweet love, 
Sweet laughter 
Sweet wondrous life to live.

“I remember that one!” said Rory. “Read it again.” 

Read it again. How many times had Rory said those words to me over the years? And how many years had it been since he’d said them? Many, on both counts. I somehow managed not to cry as I reread “Prayer” and then flipped back to share Myers’s full collection before revisiting other picture books with my son. Since then, he’s requested more FaceTime story times, and I’ve happily, gratefully obliged to offer his hurting heart comfort and affirmation from a hundred miles away.

Most recently we read Ashley Bryan’s Beautiful Blackbird. We didn’t get much past the personalized inscription Bryan wrote to Rory on the title page before I heard my two-year-old, Zachary, loudly resisting bedtime in the next room. I scooped him up and brought him into my office, saying, “I’m reading a book to Rory on the phone. Do you want to read, too?” 

“Sure!” said Zachary, astonished at his good fortune.

Soon, he and Rory were reading along with me, repeating the refrain, “Black is beautiful, UH-HUH!”

Overhearing us, sixteen-year-old Emilia walked in and asked, “What are you doing?”

“Reading with Rory,” I said. “Do you want to join us?”

“Okay,” said Emilia, pulling Zachary into her lap.

It was a pretty idyllic experience, one I’ve held onto while also holding concerns about how the current moment will impact my children’s “wondrous li[ves] to live.” A wise friend said her primary parenting focus is on what her children’s “emotional memory” of this time will be. I’ve tried to take that perspective to heart, knowing I can’t fix everything, and woefully aware of times when stress and worry have gotten the best of me. It’s hard not to despair, or to feel helpless in the face of so much uncertainty and pain. But writers and artists like Myers, Bryan, and many others, have helped me “anoint my [children’s] ears with wisdom” and “let beauty fill [their] eyes” even in these most difficult times. For that, I’m grateful, not just because of the immediate comfort shared reading can provide, but because of the lasting impressions it makes. It’s part of the child that’s “still in there” when I see my grown son, onstage, or on FaceTime, and hopefully sometime soon, with me again.

Megan Dowd Lambert
Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons University’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. For nearly ten years she also worked in the education department of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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Carol Ekster

What an inspirational and beautifully written piece about the power of reading to our children!

Posted : Sep 18, 2020 11:47


Cindy McMahon

Thank you for sharing these beautiful experiences. MOST of my closest times with family members have been through shared reading and discussion. Now my children live far away, but maybe this Facetime meeting idea will be something we can do. My prayers for your son. It is such a difficult time to be a young adult.

Posted : Sep 06, 2020 03:15


Deborah Amadei

My grandnephew is celebrating his fourth birthday next month and fortunately, a member of my critique group has a new book coming out. I've asked her if she would autograph a copy for him.

Posted : Sep 06, 2020 01:33


Peter Carolin

Dear Megan, I love your post. It is integrative and restorative. It illustrates to me the importance of small things, like a poem, that will push an individual toward “Hope”, caught in a swirling center of “Despair.” As a teacher, and parent, I have always believed in “planting seeds” in the hearts and minds of “the beginners”, but you imply with your idyllic moment the importance of repeating/creating a refrain, so a reunification may take place of past, present, and future; heart, mind, and soul. Out from the rhythm grows social/anthropological “Culture” in defiance of things that would tear us down. Thank you.

Posted : Sep 03, 2020 09:48


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