The Reading PromiseMy Father and the Books We Shared
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Ozma, Alice
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780446583770
“I am terribly afraid of falling, myself,” said the Cowardly Lion, “but I suppose there is nothing to do but try it. So get on my back and we will make the attempt.”
—L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
It started on a train. I am sure of it. The 3,218-night reading marathon that my father and I call The Streak started on a train to Boston, when I was in third grade. We were reading L. Frank Baum’s The Tin Woodman of Oz, the twelfth book in the beloved Oz series, a few hours into our trip. The woman across the aisle turned to us and asked why my father was reading to me on a train. We simply told her that this was what we always did—he had been reading to me every night for as long as I could remember, ever since we read Pinocchio when I was four. Being on vacation didn’t make much of a difference. Why not read? Why not always read?
But her surprise made us think. If we were going to read on vacation anyway, how hard could it be to make reading every night an official goal? I suggested to my father that we aim for one hundred consecutive nights of reading, and he agreed to the challenge. This is how I remember it.
If you ask my father, though, as many people recently have, he’ll paint an entirely different picture.
“Lovie,” he tells me, as I patiently endure his version of the story, “you’re cracked in the head. Do you want to know what really happened or are you just going to write down whatever thing comes to mind?”
Lovie, as I’m sure you can guess, is not my real name. Alice is, but only sort of. My full name is Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina, but I don’t care for Kristen. Alice and Ozma are names my father chose from literature, names I would later choose for myself. It’s a decision that took a long time, but one I’m very happy I made. Those names always felt like my real names to me, as I’ll explain later. Also, Lovie is not the affectionate pet name you might think it is. As are all things in my father’s vocabulary, it is a reference to something—this time it’s Mr. Howell’s nickname for Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. My father never calls me by my name; Lovie is his most commonly chosen alternative. But when I drop something, or forget something, or do any of the silly things we all manage to do on a regular basis, “Lovie” is often followed by phrases such as “you nitwit!”
“So tell me then,” I say, standing in his doorway as he gets ready to run errands.
“Well, when did Mom leave?” he asks.
“I was ten.”
“All right, so 1997 it started. The Streak was a year old when she left.”
“And what were we reading?”
“Well,” he says thoughtfully, “it had to be an Oz book. That’s what we were into around that time. I wanted to try other things, but you were set in your ways.”
So far, we agree. But I know this won’t last long.
“We were on the bed, we’d just finished reading,” he says, “and I was fearing the Curse of Mr. Henshaw.”
“What is that curse?”
“Dear Mr. Henshaw was the book I was reading to Kathy when she asked me to stop reading to her,” he says in an almost whisper.
It is clear that this memory, though nearly two decades old, still troubles him. My sister was in fourth grade when she said she no longer wanted my father to read to her. It seemed childish to her, especially since she was already reading novels on her own. But it wasn’t so easy for my father. He was an elementary school librarian, and reading to children was what he liked to do best. And maybe next to being a father, it’s also what he does best. His soothing voice and rehearsed facial expressions have won over thousands of children throughout his career. They won me over, too, but I was already on his side.
“For some time, I’d been planning to suggest to you that we do a streak, because then at least you’d be a little older when we stopped reading together. I brought it up, and honest to Pete, I thought you were going to say we should read a hundred nights in a row!” He laughs as he recalls this. I don’t laugh because I think I did suggest a hundred nights in a row. Initially.
“No,” he continues, “Right away you said, ‘Let’s do one thousand!’ And I had to pretend to be enthusiastic, of course, but I wasn’t too optimistic. One thousand nights is a long time.”
I have to stop him there. None of this sounds right to me. First I remind him that our goal had been one hundred nights. When we reached that goal, however, and celebrated with a pancake breakfast at the local greasy spoon, we decided to set a new goal. We skipped the discussions of lower options, from two hundred to five hundred, and ultimately decided to try for one thousand nights. I tell him this, but he just shakes his head. When I try to explain that The Streak actually began on the train, he cuts me off.
“Ah, the Curious Incident of the Train in the Nighttime!” he says, adapting the title of one of our favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.
“I remember that part clearly,” he continues, “because I never miss an opportunity to brag about what a good father I am. We were on the train to Boston, going up to see the sights for a weekend, and the woman next to us said how sweet it was that I was reading to you. I told her right away that we were on a streak, forty nights in! I was pleased with myself, absurdly pleased with myself, pleased as a peacock to have made it forty nights.”
We both laugh this time, but I am laughing partly because I know he is wrong. The train was the first night. Obviously.
The thing is, no matter how many times we are asked, we can never get this story straight. We agree on a few of the details, but I was very young and he is getting older. Some memories blend together with others, and our individual versions of how The Streak started change so often, it is nearly impossible to come to any sort of agreement. We can’t even remember when we started calling it The Streak, or whose idea it was to do so. If we knew it would eventually reach over thirty-two hundred nights and span almost nine years, from elementary school to my first day of college, we might have taken notes in the beginning. Years passed before we even started keeping track of the books we read during Read Hot (pronounced “Red Hot”—another term for our nightly addiction, phrasing we found in The Great Gilly Hopkins).
Just because we didn’t know how it would end, though, didn’t mean we took our Streak lightly. Our rules were always clear and firm: we had to read for at least ten minutes (but almost always much more) per night, every night, before midnight, with no exceptions. It should come from whatever book we were reading at the time, but if we were out of the house when midnight approached, anything from magazines to baseball programs would do. The reading should be done in person, but if the opportunity wasn’t there, over the phone would suffice. Well, just barely. I could always hear the annoyance in my father’s voice when I called to inform him that I was sleeping at a friend’s. He’d sigh and put down the phone, and I’d wait for him to go get our book. Sometimes, he’d ask me to call back in ten minutes.
“I haven’t even preread it yet!” he’d protest. He insisted on rehearsing (and with more adult books, sometimes censoring) our reading ahead of time.
We remember details from later in The Streak better, both because they are more recent and because our record was becoming more impressive. Once we reached over a thousand nights, close calls and readings at quarter to midnight became more nail-biting issues. Of course we both remember how it eventually ended. That’s the sort of event even my father can’t forget, an event we dreaded for years. To get there, though, we need a beginning, and frankly I don’t know what that beginning is.
I think I was leaning against him, in the crook of his arm, with my head on his chest, as our train to Boston sped past houses and schools and baseball fields that became colorful blurs. We were already dedicated to L. Frank Baum and the Oz books—in fact, we were reading the entire series for the second, or maybe third, time. My father loved Baum’s take on leadership and women, not to mention his spot-on, frank humor that made us laugh a little harder every time we reread something. I liked the wonderful descriptions of beautiful places, like palaces and magnificent dining rooms filled with people and good food. Whenever we stayed in a hotel, which we were about to in Boston, I wondered if it was like the palace of Glinda or Rinkitink. That night, as my father read the description of the palace in the Emerald City, with its marvelous banners and gem-encrusted turrets, I squirmed eagerly in my seat, excited to get to the Marriott and check in.
I review this, and my father shakes his head.
“That’s how I remember it,” my father insists, after repeating his story of the beginning, now for the third time today, the details varying just a bit each time. But then he sighs.
“Problem with my remembrances, though,” he admits, “is that they’re always so goofed up.”
I sit for a minute, comparing my notes on both versions of the story, seeing what they have in common. I am about to begin my argument once more, since simply repeating something over and over again sometimes convinces my dad that I am right (or at least wears him out). He knows I’m getting riled up, though, because his back is already to me as I’m about to begin my diatribe.
“I’m going to go look for treasures in the coat closet,” my father says, heading down the stairs.
I’m not sure if this is a saying I’m expected to know or a literal plan, but it’s apparent that the conversation is over. I didn’t think we’d come to an agreement, anyway.
But this is how I remember it.