South Bend

When I was five, my mother read to me before bedtime. We never read in bed. “Beds,” she told me, “are for sleeping.” My father would be absent, traveling for work, and we would gather ourselves in the den, just the two of us, on a couch covered in faded flower-print chintz, my mother holding the book, me half in, half out, her lap. My mother wore gray flannel skirts in those days, and a fluffy white angora sweater with fibers that tickled your nose when you snuggled. In the seventies, she wore a clunky necklace of amber beads. They disappeared, I recall, shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan, replaced by a strand of pearls.

The first book we read together was Beowulf. The choice was typical of what my mother called “good common sense.” If, she thought, I was to understand English literature, I should probably begin at the beginning. In retrospect, I imagine there was a second, slightly more self-serving reason for her choice. She was teaching in the University of Chicago’s Great Books program at our local elementary school and needed to read the book for class. Two birds, one stone. Good common sense.

My mother was always patient with questions.

“Who are the Geats?”

“They are us, the English.”

“Who are the Danes?”

“They are like your father, Germans.”

“What is mead?”

“Beer.”

The decision to read Beowulf to a five-year-old might seem odd, in light of contemporary parenting norms, but in the early seventies, perhaps, it didn’t stick out so much. Every other child was reading Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are with their parents. I’m not sure the Killing of Grendel is that much different from the Wild Rumpus. There were men in odd costumes, dangerous beasts, a timeless, stifling, closed, threatening world—they are basically the same book. I thought the choice was normal.

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