Monday 26 Sep 2016

Reading
Sjef Frenken

We'd finished our lunch. Jack dug into a plastic bag he'd brought with him. He hauled out a slim soft-cover boo, and handed it to me. It was Robert Munch's Love You Forever.

I said "Who'd you buy this for? You don't have kids that young. Or grandchildren, for that matter. Or have you fathered a child I don't know about?"

"No, no, no," answered Jack. "I'm going over to Mike's place for supper. One of his grandchildren is having a sleep-over for his birthday, so I bought him this as a present."

I said "Jennifer used to read this story to our kids, years ago. Of all of Munch's stories, I like this one best. This one and The Paper Bag Princess. Actually, I think Love You Forever is more of a story for grown-ups."

Jack said "why do you say that."

I said "do you know the story?"

"No," said Jack, "Munch is supposed to write funny stories for kids, that's why I bought it."

"Well, you're in for a surprise," I said.

"Good," said Jack, "I'll read it before I wrap it up."

I said "When I was a young lad, before I learned to read, my parents would read me to sleep. Most often my mother. My father was an airline pilot in those days, often on long trips, all the way to Indonesia. A round trip then would take up to three weeks. In short, it wasn't often that my father was able to read to me. That made it all the more special when he did.

I was five years old when the Nazis overran Holland at the start of World War Two. We moved in with my aunt and grandmother in the south -- less likely to get bombed or starved there. My father stayed in the north to begin his medical studies. My mother had her hands full with my two little sisters. It fell to my aunt to read to me. Sometimes I was even allowed to sleep in her bed, especially during the winter. We had no central heating, and during the cold months we had to rely on hot water bottles to warm feet, and, eventually, the rest of our bodies. But oh the delight of crawling into a cold bed, knowing that I'd be warm soon, and that my aunt would lead me into the magical world of Hans Christian Andersen. Recalling that happy feeling brings a smile to my face to this day.

Back to my father, in his last years. He was in his early nineties then. He'd pretty much lost the use of his legs. His mind, however, was still first class. Even when he could no longer write, that didn't stop him: until about two weeks before he died he was still dictating the many stories of his life to my youngest sister.

Toward the end, his eyes too began to fail; he had difficulty reading. I was flying over to Holland three, four times a year. I joined the small group of people who read to him. His favourite book was one called De Eeuw van Mijn Vader (The Century of My Father) by Geert Mak, a Dutch writer. It chronicles the life of the author's father and family against the historical, social and political life in Holland from the beginning to the end of the 1900s. This pretty much spanned the life of Mr Mak's father as well as that of my own dad.

My father took it all in as if he were enjoying a fine meal: in a sense he was reliving much of his own life.

Unfortunately, being read to, and reading to my children, had always been associated in my mind with sleeping. It was no wonder then, that every time, very shortly after I began to read to my father, I began to yawn. And that is not something you can easily hide. It was awful sitting there, trying to still the impulse to yawn, as my father was eagerly listening. Did he think that I was bored? That I'd much rather entertain him by playing the piano? I knew he didn't have much longer to live; why couldn't I stifle my yawns?

We never finished that book. He died in 2001 just before his 94th birthday.

I feel grateful that I was able to see him so often during his last years, and yes, to have been able to repay him for the stories he told me in my childhood. But I do regret the yawns ...."

Jack had sat listening quietly. Jack, as I've mentioned a few times, lives by himself. His ex-wife and their children live in Winnipeg. Jack has lots of girl-friends, but few get to stay overnight.

There was a pause. And then Jack said "I wonder who's going to read to me at the end."

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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