The year was….Never mind the year. I was 13. I was turning 13 to be exact, which put me out of middle school and poised to start high school in the Autumn. My sister was kind enough to pass chicken pox on to me which meant that, while all my schoolmates were sustaining their exit exams, I was lying in bed looking like a beet.
My birthday falls in the Summer, after the school year was over and, as we were always out of town, I permanently felt robbed of the experience of big parties with other kids – my birthday ended up being more of a family affair until I was old enough to organize my own celebrations.
That year, after obtaining an exemption and sitting for my exams all alone, I fled the hot and muggy city for the country and I can’t quite remember how such an important birthday was celebrated. Mom most likely made some of my favourite dishes, maybe we went to the pool or got together with the couple of girlfriends who were also vacationing nearby. What I do remember is my father getting home from work, a long commute from the city, and setting a nondescript crate big enough to contain my sister and I in the middle of the living room.
“Your birthday present” he proclaimed with an air of satisfaction.
My family, like most Italian families at the time, was not big on birthday cards or fancy wrapping. I can’t remember a single gift that came with pretty paper or oversized bows but the crate beat them all. I approached it suspiciously, it sure looked heavy, and when my hand pried the lid open a giant “O” of disbelief formed on my mouth. It was packed with books of different sizes and shapes and colours: from Jules Verne to Don Quixote, from Gone with the Wind to Pollyanna. I was speechless for several minutes, spreading books on the floor, trying to take them all in, unsure where to start before I finally remembered the donor and hugged him like a monkey.
My father used to work less than a block away from a bookstore and, whenever I would visit him, he would take me for a walk over there, where I would browse through the narrow aisles, a bookseller in tow trying to steer me towards books he felt were appropriate for my age while I was always attracted to more mature material. “Let her have it” – my dad would say – “she is smart enough to understand it”. And, today, I am grateful for his leniency – different books yield different experiences and meanings according to the age of the reader. Some of them were clearly way above my head but I got what I could, what made sense and whatever intrigued me enough was still there to be re-read later on in life, when maybe a social or political context were better understood. But, at the end of the day, a good story is a good story and that is what I always came away with. And that is what I still go back to whenever I close a book.
I don’t know if I would have become such a compulsive reader had my father not encouraged me, in his unorthodox way, from an early age. In a sense, I missed out on the more conventional and beloved children’s books in favour of more odd choices – how about the Argonauts for children?? Even my Pinocchio was on an oversize volume more reminiscent of an encyclopedia than a children’s book but it had wonderful illustrations that no Disney movie could ever erase from my memory.
I tend to think my “book hunger” is in my genes. But I do know that the crate of books I received for my 13th birthday is, hands down, the best gift I ever received. It also marked the end of adolescence and the beginning of parental conflict that marred the relationship with my father for many years to come.
I never asked my father if he was getting tired of walking to the store and buying a couple of books at a time which I proceeded to devour in a matter of days. Was it a convenience gift on his part? I would like to think he presented an empty crate to the bookseller and said “Fill it”, with a grin on his face. And I am not going to ask, making that thought become my truth.