We read to remember who we are

I’m very grateful for the generous response I received for my previous post about my mother.  Thank you to everyone who read, liked or commented on my words and thank you to those of you who got in touch by email or through social media with your kind messages and thoughts about bereavement, families and memory.

With this in mind, it’s been lovely that, for the last two weeks, there’s been a ‘family’ theme to the stories and poems I’ve read with the groups I facilitate for The Reader Organisation.  We call these particular shared reading groups ‘Library Memory Groups’ because we meet and read in libraries and because everyone is in some way affected by memory loss, whether as a carer or through illnesses such as strokes, dementia or MS.

A Little AloudI rely heavily on A Little, Aloud, an anthology of stories and poems edited by Angela MacMillan (one of the founders of The Reader Organisation).  This is a collection of stories and poems which have proved popular in the many shared reading groups the charity has been involved in since its inception in 2001.  The two pieces we read from were a short story, All the Year of her Life,  by Morley Callaghan and a poem, Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.

The story (from Now That April’s Here and Other Stories (New York, 1936) and also published in The New Yorker in the 1930s, I discovered) describes what happens when Alfred Higgins, a young shop assistant in an American drugstore, is revealed as a petty thief by the owner of the store, Sam Carr, who telephones Alfred’s mother, Mrs Higgins, to tell her of her son’s misdemeanours (this isn’t the first time that Alfred has been in trouble we learn as the story develops and Mrs Higgins arrives at the store to talk Sam Carr into not giving Alfred up to the police).

Because of the way we read in our groups, slowly, with lots of pauses, we’re able to really talk; not only about what’s happening in the story and what we think will happen but also about how the story makes us feel and what memories it unearths.  This story reminded some of the group of times they’d been in trouble as youngsters, not shoplifting like Alfred Higgins but times they’d put themselves in danger through risky behaviour like tree and building-climbing and wading across deep rivers.  They associated Alfred’s behaviour with incidents from their own past.  Several people remembered how frightened they’d felt once they knew they were in trouble and they sympathised with how Alfred must be feeling as Sam Carr looked out on the street for a passing Cop.

We talked about why some people take risks and stray from the straight and narrow.  Some people felt sorry for Alfred and wondered why he kept offending.  We all agreed that he was very young, probably not much more than sixteen, yet he’d already had several jobs as the school-leaving age was so much younger in the 1930s when the story was set.  Some of the group told us about jobs they’d had as young people.  It’s always interesting and enjoyable to hear these stories and to find out more about people’s lives.  Sometimes, group members remember things about themselves, things they haven’t thought or spoken about for years and it’s as if their own memories are a revelation to themselves.

Not everyone felt sympathy for Alfred Higgins.  What about Sam Carr’s livelihood some of us asked, and people who’d run a shop or pub remembered how they’d had to deal with petty thieving themselves, the approach they’d taken and how they’d tried to give the offender a second chance.

And what about Mrs Carr, the mother?  Most of us had plenty of sympathy for her, even though she spoke coldly to her son, she’d risked humiliation by coming out to the shop in the evening to try to help him.  We talked about the sacrifices that parents make, remembering acts of kindnesses our parents had done for us and thinking about how we, as parents, had helped our own children.  Everyone agreed that parenting was challenging!

There was so much to talk about in this short story.  We imagined what would happen if something like this happened today and agreed that in probability the police would be called immediately since most shops nowadays are anonymous chains, it would be unlikely that the manager would know customers by name as we imagined Sam Carr did.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’m wondering if some of you are questioning  how we’re able to carry on with our sometimes complex discussions when most of the members of our groups are affected by memory loss.  It’s true that our chats don’t always proceed in an orderly fashion; there is some leaping off at tangents as associative ideas take on a life of their own and the conversation veers away from the text.  But the story or poem is never abandoned and there is always a feeling of satisfaction that it is there to come back to.

It happens every week and I’m getting used to it now but it is amazing how people come to life when they’re talking about something they’ve read.  This wonderful tweet from Matt Haig reminded me again of the power and importance of reading.

In our groups we read to remember who we are, not only to find new parts of ourselves but to remember the parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten.

In A Little, Aloud, one story and one poem are arranged together, usually with a line or phrase from the poem as the overall heading.  The poem to accompany All the Years of Her Life is Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden and the phrase from the poem is Love’s Lonely Offices.   This title provoked a discussion about the loneliness of loving someone without any reward and about what it meant to love someone unconditionally, receiving nothing in return.  The father in the poem, after working hard all week, gets up early on Sunday morning to light a coal fire and make the house warm for his family although “No one ever thanked him.”  We all remembered being cold and off-hand to someone who’d done us a kindness, especially our parents.  Someone said the poem was depressing but others disagreed and said that the speaker of the poem acknowledges the kindness and that that acknowledgement was a kind of thanks.  We agreed that it felt good to remember our own and others acts of kindness and reading the story and poem helped us connect with those feelings.

Steeple 4Two other poems we read this week were taken from another fantastic resource,  the Bloodaxe anthology Being Alive.  I found one of the poems, Sinéad Morrisey’s Genetics, by chance because it happened to be on the facing page to the Seamus Heaney sonnet (from Clearances, a sequence written in memory of the poet’s mother)  I wanted to share with the groups.  “We know our parents made us by our hands” is a recurring line from the poem and it was rather lovely to see, out of the corner of my eye while I was reading aloud, one of the group members twirling and twisting her hands.  “I have my mother’s fingers,” she told us.  We all remembered and re-enacted the children’s rhyme “Here is a church, here is a steeple” which is referenced in the poem.

Slow reading, reading aloud together and sharing thoughts and memories that stories and poems unearth are to be recommended.   Through reading, we find and remember ourselves.

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