A Christmas package arrived from my sister Kelli. Ron made me a cup of tea while Kelli and I face-timed, and I opened my gift. Inside were three copies of Fluffy and Bluffy, the children’s book I was holding when I first learned to read.
I had mentioned the book to Kelli months ago while Ron and I were in Green Bay. I told her that I often looked for it when visiting used bookstores and antique shops. There were two puppies with hearts for noses on the dust jacket, but I couldn’t remember the title. There was no way to search for it online. I asked Kelli how she ever found the books. She said as soon as I described the cover, she remembered the title. Our brains are hardwired differently. She thinks in black and white while information swims around my head in a gray fog moored to things more theoretical than fact. She’s eighteen months younger than I am. Her brain had taken a photo of the book, including the title, and had stored it among childhood memories.
Fluffy and Bluffy was written by Alene Dalton and published in 1951. It had been part of my grandma Betz’s children’s book collection. She taught kindergarten for decades in De Pere, Wisconsin. By my mom’s account, I was either three or four when I received the book and learned to read. I remember sitting with someone on my grandparents’ sofa. My mom thinks it was her dad, my grandpa Frankie. The book was already my favorite, and I was excited to listen to the adventure of Fluffy and Bluffy Pooch, twin puppies who meet Peter Rabbit, The Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, and a little elf named Fibber-dibberus on their walk through the woods. Up until then, letters in books had appeared on pages as sticks, and circles, and humps. That day something magical happened. The words split up and floated on the page, rearranging themselves as tiny soldiers—each letter with its own unique place in a word. In that moment, I became a reader.
I flipped through one of the books Kelli gave me with delight. Peter Rabbit, the pigs, the elf, they were all there in the order I remembered. I lifted it to my face and breathed in deeply. The copy of Fluffy and Bluffy I received from my grandma had smelled musty, like old books do. An aroma that resides deep in me as comfort and a link to knowledge. It is the smell of George Washington crossing the Delaware from my fifth-grade social studies book and the scent of medieval knights raiding a village in a book I checked out from the Fairview South Elementary School library to complete my sixth grade Middle Ages project. It is the smell that burrowed into my clothes after hours of research in the Haggerty Library at Mount Mary University while working on a degree in education. It is what I remember most of that day on the sofa surrounded by people I loved and who loved me enough to sit quietly time and time again until I could read and share the story of Fluffy and Bluffy on my own.
My journey with reading and my love of books was nearly destroyed during my elementary school years. At 65th Street School in Milwaukee where I attended kindergarten, my parents were told by my teacher, a well-meaning, grandmother who wore her curly hair in a bun, that I suffered from petit mal seizures. In her opinion, my frequent episodes of staring into space (something I still do today) was cause for alarm. The news shocked my parents, and unintentionally their concern left me feeling that there was something wrong with me. I don’t remember going to the doctor or being tested at school, but I do remember there were no books in the classroom and that my days consisted of copying the letters of the alphabet from large cards that hung on colored yarn above the chalkboard.
It was in first grade across the street from 65th Street School at Our Lady of Sorrows that I learned being left-handed was the sign of the devil. The nuns had a duty to guard my soul. So, while my classmates learned phonics and read books, I spent reading hour in a classroom with a few kids I didn’t know sitting on my left hand while holding a pencil in my right hand trying to form perfect letters on flimsy, lined paper.
We moved to the suburbs after that terrible year, and any thought of reading books in second grade was dashed when once again I was ushered to a classroom across the hall to learn how to write properly. Over the summer my right hand had forgotten how to form letters. Saint Dominic’s was a new school run by a different order of nuns who also believed my left-handedness was something in need of exorcism. The hit to my budding self-esteem and confidence ran so deep that by third grade and yet another new school (my parents having had enough of the nuns had opted for public education), I could barely speak when called on and dreaded round robin reading where I stuttered so bad, I was often passed over. I had missed three years of phonics and practice in reading. I had also missed three years of learning how to follow instructions. To add to the gaping holes in my education, I have two forms of dyslexia that were identified in college. One is phonological dyslexia. I lack phonetic awareness and cannot sound out new words. The other is called surface dyslexia. It is still difficult for me to take a word or phrase from one text and copy it onto another. For example, copying information from an insurance card onto a doctor’s office intake form may take several minutes, and I usually get it wrong the first time.
My third-grade teacher, a young woman who wore floral-scented perfume, recommended that my parents find me a tutor. Kids smell fear and shame and before Christmas break that year, the bullies had cut me from the herd for their entertainment. The remainder of my elementary school days left a peach pit-sized sickness in my belly as I tried my best to avoid the mean kids while carving out a niche as the funny girl who joined forces with other misfits outside of school where, thank God, I developed life-long friendships.
During those early school years, I gobbled up books at home, escaping to new worlds void of bullies and teasing. Even though books have remained a constant companion in my life, some part of me had always believed if I could just find a copy of Fluffy and Bluffy, the final piece of the healing puzzle would be complete. The book was the key to redemption.
Like Fluffy and Bluffy, books and stories are meant to be shared. In 1989 I gave my daughter up for adoption. That Christmas a dear friend surprised me with a copy of Polar Express accompanied with a beautiful card. Inside she had written, Someday, you will have a chance to read this to her at Christmas.
In the story, a little boy meets Santa after being whisked away with other children on a train, The Polar Express, to the North Pole on Christmas Eve where Santa asks each child to choose a gift. The little boy requests a bell from one of Santa’s reindeers. Santa obliges and cuts a bell from a harness and hands it to the boy. Later, back on the train and headed for home, the boy reaches in his pocket to show the other children the bell but finds a hole instead. On Christmas morning the boy discovers a small box left by Santa. Inside is a new bell with a note, Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket. Mr. C. The boy shakes the bell, and it has the most beautiful sound. Unfortunately, his parents can’t hear it. As time passes and his friends grow up, he is the only one left who can hear the bell. The book ends with his parting thoughts. “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”
I still believe. Maybe not in Santa, but I do believe in the power of stories and books. I’m blessed to have my daughter in my life now and sent her the copy of Polar Express I received so many year ago. I was hoping to spend Christmas with her and imagined reading the book to her children. Regrettably, I’m not with them because of COVID-19. I hope the book carries a bit of Christmas magic across the miles with this message for my daughter. I love you.
I have read more books this year than I have in the last five years combined. They have acted as friends and as a therapist during these troubled times. Kelli and I cried as I read Fluffy and Bluffy. She had given me the perfect Christmas gift. One copy is for my daughter as a bridge to my past. One copy is to keep here in the present to heal the little girl who believed there was something wrong with her, and one copy is to put in the future house we plan to buy in Wisconsin so that I may begin a new chapter with family and old friends.
Favorite Books I Read in 2020
Chera Hammons-Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom (my personal favorite)
Tara French books- In the Woods; The Searcher
Louise Penny- Still Life; A Fatal Grace (reading now)
Scott Graham- Arches Enemy
Jeanine Cummins– American Dirt
Laurinda Wallace- The Disappearance of Sara Colter
Richard Russo– Straight Man
Amy Irvine- Desert Cabal
Aaron Bobrow Strain- The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez
Isabel Wilkerson- Caste The Origins of our Discontents (reading now)
Barack Obama- A Promised Land
Maria Hinojosa– Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America
Tobi Alfier- Slices of Alice and Other Character Studies; Symmetry: earth and sky
Miriam Sagan- Star Gazing
All things Ken Waldman