Thursday, October 4, 2007

Reading Mary Beth

Today is my sister's birthday. And in lieu of giving her anything tangible for her birthday, (cheapskate, busy) I am going to post a piece I originally wrote for Book Magazine in 2002. In the magazine they gave us the last page and it was illustrated by a drawing of Mary Beth's and one of her journal entries which, as always, begins, "Toady, I..."

Happy Birthday Mary Beth. You are catching up to me.


During the summer of 1972, while my mother was pregnant, my parents and I read The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine together. My father had read the book with his family thirty years earlier. Written in 1896 by Franck Stockton, it details the humorous adventures of two plainspoken, determined women who, along with their companion and narrator Mr. Craig, begin a trip from San Francisco to Japan with great expectations, only to become shipwrecked on a desert island. Ultimately their adventure turns into a better trip than the one they had intended to take.

That summer, we too had great hopes and expectations. I was nearly nine years old and convinced the kid would play second base next to my shortstop, turning the pivot on the Hawley to Hawley to Yastrzemski double play. My parents, teachers and great readers of mysteries, no doubt imagined a future doctor or lawyer or Ellery Queen. On October 4 my sister was born, and it soon became clear that she would not be any of those things. A doctor diagnosed her as retarded and suggested institutionalization.

As it turned out, Mary Beth was not institutionalized, but she would never become a doctor or lawyer or a second baseman, either. Still, like the rest of our family, she has always loved to read. She is about to turn thirty, and while not a strong reader, she is an avid one. She cozies up to the Sweet Valley Jr. High series and loves listening to the Harry Potter books on tape. And she relates to the Madeleine books because she, like Madeleine, was always dodging trouble.

Each summer when we were young, we would take our Pinto station wagon on road trips to and from Massachusetts. My sister and I would share the backseat. The trips were filled with lots of yelling and screaming, and one of my jobs was to keep my sister occupied. The best way to do it was by reading picture books to her. Curious George, Dr. Seuss -- anything with a rhyme and colorful pictures did the trick. When I was thirteen, my sister wandered off during a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame. My dad, frantic, paid ten bucks for some kid’s bike and tore across Cooperstown, New York, looking for her. She reappeared an hour later, calmly holding hands with the person who found her. Years later in Paris with my parents, Mary Beth refused to leave until she saw the hospital where Madeleine had her appendix removed.

Last Thanksgiving we visited our parents in Florida. Mary Beth, as is her habit, brought three library books with her. She pitched a fit when she realized the books would be due before she returned home, and she didn’t want to pay the forty-five--cent fine. We gave her two quarters, but she wouldn’t budge. So the day after Thanksgiving, we all marched to the post office and mailed the books back to the library. It cost us $3.95, but she was happy that the books were returned on time.

Like the characters in The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, my parents and I have adapted to our adventure, and while our journey has not been the one we expected to take, it has been, perhaps, better. We do not take for granted moments such as seeing Mary Beth race across the finish line at the Special Olympics, winning yet another gold medal, or the day she moved into her own apartment in Davenport, Iowa where she works for the Handicapped Development Center assisting physically disabled clients. And though I am an egghead college teacher, I think she might have a greater appreciation for the written word. She is the only one in the family who keeps a daily journal.

I have given up on the hope of playing for the Red Sox, and I know Mary Beth and I will never have deep conversations about Fagin or the Cheshire Cat, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to read her. The other day as she worked her way through another Sweet Valley Jr. High book, I sat wonderingwhere those words were taking her. So, I asked Mary Beth why she liked to read, and she looked at me and gave the same answer anybody would, "It’s fun," she said. "And I like the stories."


denise said...

Happy Birthday, Mary Beth! Wow, Peter-what a post...Speechless!

Beth said...

I love the Sweet Valley Jr. High books myself. I have read them all. Ha! I love that your sis had to send the library books on time. Incredible.

Anonymous said...

The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine is one of my favorite books (I have an 1892 copy), and your heartwarming and loving interpretation of it endears it to me even more. Thanks, and best to you and your sister.
Pete Brown, Easton MD