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Reading Together, Apart

Before the pandemic shutdown, I’d never said the words “social” and “distance” together, let alone adapted my life to fit the words. I’d been volunteering in my older grandson’s first-grade class, collecting him and his brother after school once a week to read and play until their parents got home, and engaging in marathon reading/snuggle sessions with my granddaughter.

When all that skidded to a halt and we began working together to stay apart, I felt like a Hot Wheels car that had failed to negotiate a track loop. My wheels were spinning, but I wasn’t going anywhere. For several days, I contemplated my limited options while my daughters and their families, no more than forty minutes away, figured out flexible daily schedules that included work time for the adults, school time for the kids, and a few extras, including online French and piano lessons for my granddaughter. One son-in-law sat his sons down and cut their hair shorter than I’d seen it since these boys were newborns, and I marveled online at their beautiful eyes. The other son-in-law and my daughter found a national park one state over and went camping, almost on the spur of the moment. They hiked, camped, hiked and camped again, seeing virtually no one for forty-eight hours.

Meanwhile, my bags of library books were as useful as sacks of 1980s cassette tapes. With my husband’s assistance, I read a book aloud and we sent the video to the grandchildren. Or rather, we tried to send it. After thinking it over for several minutes, my phone decided the video was too long or maybe the phone was too tired or it just didn’t like the story. At any rate, the video went nowhere, similar to its creators.

It was the grandchildren and their parents who came up with ideas that worked. During a FaceTime call, my granddaughter announced that she would read Go, Dog, Go to me. Her delivery was impeccable, and her side commentary (“Why does she keep asking if he likes her hat? He already said he doesn’t!”) was spot on.

Soon after that, a daughter, also FaceTiming, said she’d been reading Winnie-the-Pooh to her four-year-old. More specifically, she’d been reading one story -- “In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump” -- over and over. Would I like to read it this time? she asked, not quite begging.

A word about Pooh: My sister and I loved the A. A. Milne stories as children, and continued to read them aloud to each other when one of us was sick through high school and college. Certain passages never failed to reduce us to helpless, flailing laughter, though we’d take running starts and try: “Piglet lay there, wondering what had happened. At first he thought that the whole world had blown up; and then he thought that perhaps only the Forest part of it had; and then he thought perhaps only he had…” That’s approximately where the voice of the reader, already high and squeaky with suppressed chortles, would give out altogether in an explosion of pent-up mirth.

No wonder, then, that when my sister married in 1970, she gave me the very copy of The World of Pooh that is on my shelf today. Inside the front cover, she wrote of all the amusement the stories had given us, describing a childhood full of “gaiety, song and dance.” Had she had more room, she surely would have written, “gaiety, song-and-dance, here we are and there we are…umty tiddly and umty to.”

Back to my grandsons, listening to the Heffalump story for the umpteenth time. Here’s Piglet, crying, “...a horrible Heffalump!...Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump! Hoff, Hoff, a Hellible Horralump! Holl, Holl…” That my grandsons, too, were doubling up and rolling around was a bonding moment that included my sister, two hours away and unaware of this passing of the literary baton.

We went on to Eeyore’s birthday, in which Piglet falls down, breaks his balloon and “lay there, wondering what had happened. At first he thought the whole world had blown up; and then he thought that perhaps only the Forest part of it had…”  Once again, the boys and their mother on one end of the line and my husband and I on the other had to take a time out to pull ourselves together.

Tradition in the time of coronavirus. It’s what keeps us close.

Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett wrote, copy-edited, and proofread for newspapers for nearly thirty years and currently does occasional freelance writing and editing. She previously worked for a school book fair company, which offered her the chance to catch up on children’s and YA literature, her favorite genres.

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