The Climb

It’s when you become a parent yourself that you first realize just how deceptive parents can be.

My niece had one of those “ah-ha!” moments recently as she wrestled with a two-year-old on a relatively long drive. She remembered being a kid and helping her poor dim-witted mom read the road maps, becoming the navigator on many family trips.

Now, my sister — her mom — can read a map the way a really good surgeon can read your MRI. She has an intuitive feel for the things, knowing that those lines snaking along the page likely mean mountains and which back roads bypass traffic.

My niece suddenly realized that all that navigation had to do with other kinds of paths.

Every year around Mother’s Day, I like to recall that my mother’s deceptive ways focused on reading the way Baptist preachers focused on salvation. Now, my mom is a retired third-grade teacher who saw her role as a sort of “literacy goalie.” Nobody got past her without reading, and she considered teaching other subjects to non-readers akin to shuffling Titanic deck chairs.

“You can read up on math,” she would say, nearly at random. “You can’t math up on read!”

This view was not always embraced by the local school administration or those executing math-based federal grants. But the extended family voted New Board as a bloc, and we were bountiful in those days, so she was mostly left alone.

She seemed to plan my reading with a zeal and attention to detail usually reserved for Navy SEAL raids. And she also knew that if something wasn’t working, it’s best to just blow it up and move on. The summer I discovered baseball and bicycles was not as distracting as the much-later summer of beer and girls, but it left the formative me behind in what she considered the Tao of Book.

That’s when she brought home the Twain.

Of course, we knew Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in that way you “know” distant cousins. They were out there, but hardly a focal point.

“A bit too old for you,” mom declared, using a brutally effective opening gambit.  She said something about Tom and a kiss? What?

The suddenly-interesting volumes did not look exactly like the other books that multiplied like rabbits around the house, setting up little stacks in various corners. These common tomes ranged from the Reader’s Digest condensed books to various reference volumes. These newcomers, now, they had embossed spines and hard covers like the books in movies. And they were placed atop Grandma Nana’s china cabinet. This was our furniture version of Fort Knox, the domain of wallets and purses and medicines kept “out of reach” of us. The cabinet had an ornate carved top, which created a sort of tray with a two-inch wall. Inside, the good china — my little brother called them the “somebody died dishes,” though to be fair we also used them for weddings — offered certain crashing doom if the thing were jostled in the least.

That’s where The Climb came in.

You couldn’t just pull up a chair, because the tile floor was slick and there would be no second chance. So to reach something on the top, back next to the wall, required using the heavy metal kitchen chairs with their trusty rubber floor-protection feet. My sister, nearly two years older, only trusted herself as lookout, so I was The Climber. The body was the big deal — you had to hold yourself well back from the cabinet, rod straight, and reach up and over the railing, lifting straight up so as not to hit the little railing. If you’ve done any free-climbing, you’ve had to assume a similar position to reach up and out for a ledge handhold (A) and (B) you’re crazy, stop free-climbing.

The urge to extend the arm for a brace — just a little bit — against the cabinet was strong, and potentially fatal — the thing seemed to rock gently from even a long look. We thought about bracing the legs, but figured that plan lacked stealth.

So we turned the back of the chair toward the cabinet. My sibling steadied the thing until I was up there in wonder — they hadn’t painted the top and the raw wood looked like Death Valley in moonlight. The smell of old dusty wood is still with me, but we had them, had those volumes.

Soon, I got good at The Climb. Confident. Nearly jumping atop that chair. And speed was called for as mom often forgot things and returned home unexpected. So, from the strategic comfort of the living room couch, with its view of a returning mother giving plenty of time to return the books, we devoured the adventures of Tom and Huck much like kids today embrace the “Harry Potter” craze. Lacking action figures, I built prototype rafts out of twigs and eventually floated myself down Stafford Creek all the way to Elmer’s house, in a metal raft made from a sawed-off hood of a Dodge Dart (long story). We soon enough took sides — most were Team Tom, but I sided instantly with Huck on grounds of better adventures and lack of adult supervision. And the raft.

The school soon took some of us out of the regular reading schedules and sent us to the library for “personalized reading advancement.” There was disagreement on terms like “disruptive” and “age-appropriate language.” I remember looking up “obnoxious” and felt it was a bit harsh for labeling young kids.

We eventually did read up on science (nobody thought to put the biology books on a high shelf) and of course all the rest.

How much influence did that summer of mom’s Twain deception have on me?

Oh, I don’t know … but I do write for a living and my son is named Finn because nobody should face sixth grade as “Huckleberry.” And once-banned authors like Henry Miller still hold the allure of a nearby campfire.

So, soon enough, we will have a not-yet-reading list at our house and we’ll likely use the big cabinet in the living room corner. And I’ll leave the house and linger at the grocery, giving him plenty of time to drag the loveseat over and work on his balance, and I hope he enjoys the climb, because in the list of family traditions, we be a deceptive clan.