When I was growing up, I shared a bedroom with my younger sister. My mother would come in almost every night and read us a bedtime story. Sometimes, she would sit on my sister’s bed, and sometimes she would sit on mine, and read out loud to both of us, but as I got a little older, she started teaching me to read by myself. If I had trouble, she would point to a word and tell me to “sound it out,” and eventually I learned to get through a whole sentence without stumbling.
When I was around five, I started spending an occasional night at my grandparent’s house. It was always fun to stay with them. They were wholesale florists, and had three huge greenhouses where I would spend my days playing with my cousins or helping my grandfather when I got older. Being in the houses was an experience I will never forget. The glinting sunlight and window panes made each one literally “a glass house.” In the summer, most of the glass was covered with a thin film of white wash to reduce the intensity of the sunlight, but the sky was always visible; and in the winter, the white wash was hosed off to allow the sun to shine through and help keep the houses warm and bright. All of the greenhouses were connected, and no matter what time of year it was, when you entered the first one from the “packing shed,” the first thing that reached your senses was the smell of fresh flowers.
My grandfather had an old Model A that my uncles had turned into a flatbed truck by cutting off the roof, the doors, and everything but the cowl and the running boards. They made a wooden bed in the back to carry “flats” of sprouts from one greenhouse to another, and if I was lucky enough to be loading the flats, I would get to stand on the running boards, with one hand on the cowl, and the other on the wooden bed, and bounce up and down on the old dirt road as we circled the greenhouses. Some nights after work, I would ride with my uncle out to the field behind the greenhouses where my grandparents grew their own vegetables. We would pick out ears of corn, carrots, lettuce, and whatever else my grandmother might need for cooking, and then bring them back to the house.
My grandmother cooked everything from scratch. In the morning, she would go out to the chicken coop and gather half a dozen eggs and make a basket for them out of her apron. Most of the time she would fry them “sunny side up” for breakfast, scooping up the butter and spreading it over the yolks with a teaspoon, just the way my grandfather liked them, and then pour the butter over the top of the yolks as she gently slid them out of the pan and on to our plates. She squeezed fresh oranges for juice, made toast from the bread she had baked the day before, and put out fresh fruit and jars of homemade jam, and “apple butter” on the table before we sat down. A big pot of coffee was always percolating on the stove, and I could smell it in the mornings before I even got out of bed. After breakfast, my grandfather and my Uncle George, who lived with my grandparents, walked over to the greenhouses to start their workday. My grandmother had me make my bed, take my “dirty clothes” down to the basement, and brush my teeth before I was allowed to go over myself.
One night, when I was very young, my grandmother tucked me in around 9. She had put a pile of books on the chair next to my bed. They were mostly adventure stories, illustrated by artists like N.C. Wyeth, and Howard Pyle, and I will admit to having skimmed through most of them looking for interesting illustrations, and trying to get a feel for the stories without having to actually read them. I may have learned how to read, but I had yet to find something that really inspired me to want to.
Looking back now, my grandmother must have understood that the stories in the adventure books were over my head, because the next night, she brought in a box of Little Big Books. They had belonged to my uncles and my mother when they were growing up, so the books were a bit tattered and worn. The corners of some of them had been chewed on, and as funny as it is for me now to imagine one of my uncles, or my mother, chewing on the corner of a book, I thought nothing of it at the time when I first picked one up. What struck me was the size and weight. Little Big Books are small, roughly five inches square, and nearly two inches thick, and are not only bulkier and heavier than the larger adventure books, but they gave me the impression that they were packed with interesting stories. They had just enough appeal that for the first time since my mother started reading to me, I seriously wanted to read myself.
Little Big Books have now become a collector’s item, and I have been thinking about buying a few for myself, just to re-live those memories. I looked up “Little Big Books” on my computer the other day to see if there were any familiar titles, and I immediately recognized three of them, Little Annie Rooney, Gangbusters, and Tarzan. It may have taken me a while to “sound out” a few of the words back then, but I am almost certain that these were some of the first books I had ever read, and the stories alone must have held my attention, because it never occurred to me to chew on the covers.