I remember as a young teen coming across a small book inside a tissue paper lined box on a shelf in our home, crafted from birch bark, with poems carefully copied onto every curled-edge black-marked satin page, each poem a gift of words chosen by a young man for his future wife.
I had always known my mother loved poetry and the written word (after all, she read to us daily, her golden voice a shining road to faraway lands and places of wonder) but as a smaller child, seeing my father as Strength, Work, Wisdom, Fun and Humour, I had somehow missed, with childhood’s myopia, his love for words (How, I don’t know, because he, too, read to us almost every day, from the Word, and chapter stories before bedtime).
How wondrous to hold in my heart the new knowledge that his love for poetry had lead him to trudge through the woods he loved, selecting perfect peels of bark. Love had lead him to search through the forests of poems to gather those whose sweetness and strength seemed worthy of Her. Here I held between my palms the proof that his strong capable hands were also capable of this delicate artistry and tender tribute…this labour of love.
As a voracious reader, I had a young girl’s theoretical standards about romantic book heroes, but as I carefully put the birch bark anthology back in its box, my heart swelled in new appreciation for my real ‘book hero and heroine’. (Theirs is still my favourite love story to this day).
Since then, I’m happy to say we have had many sessions sitting around the kitchen table looking up at our favourite mountain, or by the fire, sharing poetry and stories with my parents and with each other. It’s especially fun to get my Dad started on poems, since he will recite them ‘by heart’ , having learned them over his lifetime. I treasure the almost daily emails I receive with poems and stories from Mama, almost as good as sitting basking in their sunny window seat and reading with them.
Finding the birch bark book that day marked a new state in my life, that of beginning to notice my parents as people, with inner landscapes of their own. I began to see how they dedicated their skills and talents to build a life for us. How they forged ahead in parenting when they probably actually felt young, and inexperienced, and confused and worried at so many points when raising us. How they went from being the center of a romantic story, where every tiny detail about the other was a new discovery, rejoiced in by those around them, to being the leaders of a house full of small people, somewhat incurious about their parents, little kids who probably noticed very little beyond what directly affected them.
So much of my childhood revolved around stories and words, leaning against a parent, watching hands turn the pages of a myriad of books.
I am sure it would have been easier after a long day of work, for my parents to leave us to find our own entertainment. Yet after dinner and chores, before bedtime, they read to us, both picture books, and also chapter books.
Daddy, after a long commute and longer work day, might sometimes require the combined frantic massaging of several small hands on his head and neck to keep awake while he read to us about Narnia or whatever story it was; yet he still chose to spend his scarce evening hours reading to us of heroes and heroines of courage and honour, of humour and tenderness.
Mama might have liked to put her feet up after running after us, cooking meals of artistry and flavour, teaching, and nurturing us, but instead she put us up on the couch, braving the wandering of sticky fingers in her hair, and wove magic with her voice, her evening hours a gift to us.
These reading times were such a part of my childhood, yet looking back, I know that the most important reading of all was my parents’ dedication to family worship.
My Dad read through the Word from Genesis to Revelation, and starting again at Genesis over the years. They involved us in the simple rituals of candles, prayer, readings, singing. I remember the faint, comforting cadence of Daddy’s voice floating down the hall as we drifted into sleep, reading The Writings to my Mama.
I have become an adult, and my parents are my best friends. As I spend time with the children in my life now, observing their parents (my siblings and friends) from a peer perspective, I find that the book of my early life has many more pages than I had known. As I watch this generation of parents, I learn more about the work my Book Heroes undertook when they were so young, and when I was too young to notice much.
Each page of that book was searched out and chosen by them, each satiny surface marked with wisdom and examples for me to keep, an anthology of spiritual and natural life, carefully crafted by their hands, bound with their youth, wrapped in translucent sheets of their dedication and kept safely in their promise to the Lord at my baptism.
Yet when I look closely at that book, I see that every leaf has the same message inscribed on its surface; the reminder that any story that is good, any idea that is true, is so only because it echoes the Real Story. My earthly heroes point the way to the Real Hero of that True Book that I received when I turned seven.
That Book, with its inner cover inscribed with these words:
‘I will lift up mine eyes to the mountains, whence come my help. My help cometh from the Lord who made heavens and the earth’.
‘And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.’ Deut 6:6