But there was always a brand-new bow on it because my father loved those big, fat stick-on bows, and this box was from him. . Which meant it was full of books.
Because it wasn't just a present, that box. It was a bond, a hand squeezing mine under the table to remind me that, no matter what storms were currently raging — between us or around us — we would always have this, our shared love of, and belief in, the daily act of reading.
"Until I feared I would lose it, I did not love reading; one doesn't love breathing," wrote Harper Lee, via Scout Finch, the narrator of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and I don't think there is a sentence in the English language that I understand more. I learned to read as Scout did, sitting on my father's lap, behind newspapers and books, following his finger as he read, which was all the time.
My father never moved without a book in his hand. While my mother, also a prodigious reader, put aside her novels to teach me my letters and take me from picture books to simple narratives, Dad's idea of age-appropriate fare for a 6-year-old was "Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver's Travels," and not any of the abridged versions. He gave me "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was in the fifth grade, Jane Austen when I was in the sixth. He watched what I brought home from the library, what I read and what I didn't and asked why, pushed me to read Truman Capote and Willa Cather as thoroughly and with as much respect as I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald … no matter what my sniffy high school teachers said. He gave me Cheever and Updike and Somerset Maugham. He didn't like Mailer, ditto Gore Vidal, but we read them and discussed them and spent hours putting together our own Century lists — those authors whose work would survive 100 years.
It was an ongoing conversation we could have when other topics became too painful or infuriating, a secret code through which we could send each other messages of encouragement and support or anger and disappointment. "What are you reading?" became our "how are you doing?" Dorothy Day meant things weren't going so well for him, another sojourn into "Bleak House" meant I was seeking refuge.
As I grew older, I gave as well as received, introduced him to Margaret Atwood and Margaret Drabble, A.S. Byatt and Jorge Luis Borges, and my big box of books grew smaller and more selective — Trollope's Palliser novels, the letters of Virginia Woolf. But the conversation never flagged.
The last night of my father's life, I sat up late in hospice with him. He hadn't responded to us in almost two days, and I had run out of ways to say goodbye so I was reading the book I had shoved in my purse on the way to the airport — a copy of Agatha Christie's "N or M ?" But in between the words, the silence was just too full of what was going to happen next. So I read aloud, to my dying father, from a yellow-paged, dog-earred paperback that he had given me in a big red box one long ago Christmas.