I’m a forty-something woman, mother of a teenager (it’s going better than you’d think), and a writer. I’m fairly boring as a person and spend much of my time alone, in front of my computer, thinking of clever names for characters or how to turn a conversation I overheard in Kohl’s into an award-winning story.
On the other hand, I do have two superpowers.
The first, an uncanny ability to recognize people (usually actors) and explain where you’ve seen them before, is as truly awesome as it is useless. While I’m the person you want beside you when you can’t quite place the voice of the masked actor in V for Vendetta (it’s Hugo Weaving and I called it within, like, 3 seconds), this strange gift hasn’t done much for me so far. If there’s a game show offering millions in prize money for my bizarre talent, I haven’t found it. If there’s a reality show where I could be trapped in a house with others of similar skill and do nothing but drink and get into cat fights, I haven’t found it. Maybe some day I’ll witness a terrible crime and be the only thing standing between the forces of Evil and ultimate Justice. But seriously, feeling a sense of purpose has major appeal, and if Irving’s The Cider House Rules taught me anything (and it did), it’s to be of use.
Which brings me to superpower #2. You know how Randy Jackson or Paula Abdul or Keith Urban compliments someone’s ability to sing on American Idol by saying, “You could sing the phone book!”?
I’m like that with reading aloud.
Yep. If I read you the phone book, out loud, you’d have to make sure your mama was out of town, because you’d be tempted to slap her. You’d cry yourself to sleep wishing Superman could actually circle the Earth and turn back time, just for a few more hours to listen. And when you realized he couldn’t, you’d strap on those weird red wings from your kid’s old dragon costume and try it yourself. I’m that good.
Like all unlikely heroes, I wasn’t always careful with my power. I was reckless and used it cheaply, in an easy, cavalier fashion. In college I read Stephen King’s It in its entirety to my roommate because she was sick and had to be in bed a lot. It took us almost all semester, but we did it. And when my boyfriend (now husband) and I had the same World War I Lit. class I read our assignments aloud to him, killing two birds with one stone.
Reading aloud that much, especially in college, seems like an odd thing to do now that I think about it, but it felt very natural at the time, and so I did it.
Not long after, my daughter benefitted from my skills without ever knowing how lucky she was. Of course all parents read aloud, or they should. But I was good. I could animate Junie B. Jones and Dear Dumb Diary like nobody’s business. And don’t even get me started on Dr. Seuss. I was born to read that man’s words aloud.
And yet, it still felt like a weird parlor trick, like the kid who could pop his thumb in strange ways because he’d been born double jointed, or that guy in college who used his left hand as a dart board because for some unknown reason he had no feeling in it.
And then a few years ago I found myself with enough time in my schedule to do some volunteer work. I became nearly possessed with the thought of reading aloud to old people. Why old people? I just think they’re awesome. So I found a local convalescent home and have been reading to the residents ever since.
I won’t lie, it’s not always great. Sometimes the desperation can be hard.
Over the years I’ve made, and lost, many friends. It’s part of the deal when your audience is mostly geriatric. But I’ve also discovered how to be of use. Reading aloud may seem like no big deal, like a trivial thing that doesn’t really matter. And sometimes it is.
But sometimes it’s everything.
Like when it transports you from a sick body, from pains and tremors, from soiled diapers and sensitive, wrinkled skin. When reading aloud can take you from being trapped in an uncomfortable bed to the deep, sultry South, wondering if Tara will burn, wondering if there’ll be enough food, laughing as Scarlett hides the wallet in Wade’s diaper, thrilling as Rhett storms up the stairs, and with a rough, passionate kiss, finally declares his love…well, then it’s really something. That’s when it becomes more than the sum of its parts. I’ve always known I was good at reading out loud, but it took a bunch of old folks to teach me how important it could be.
Read to your kids. Read to your grandkids. Then read to people who can’t read for themselves. It couldn’t be easier, and I promise you, it’s more powerful than you’d think.
Yesterday I sat and read with an old woman I’ve become close with. Like so many before her, Trudy is dying. Before I left she told me that she wants Mike, the hospital’s handyman, to have her television, so I think she knows. As I walked out I ran into one of the nurses coming to check on her.
“Oh good! You’re here!” she said, shaking her head. “She keeps asking for you. All she wants is for you to read to her.”
I didn’t cry until I got home, until later that night when my husband asked how my day went. I’ll be there, Trudy. I’ll be there every morning until my friend, like the book we’ve been reading for well over a year, is gone with the wind.
About the Post Author:
Jen Barton was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1971 and spent much of her life on the East Coast. In 2008, at age 36, she and her family moved to California. With two cars, she and her husband moved two dogs, two guinea pigs, a cornsnake and their 10-year old daughter across the country. She counts the five day road trip, including a near escape by both dogs on Day 3, as one of her best experiences to date.
In 2009, with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy from Millersville University, Barton realized her childhood dream to become a writer. One van full of bored kids, one long day of travel, and Fiona Thorn was born. She’s been writing ever since.
When not taxiing her teenage daughter hither and yon, Barton loves reading (especially fantasy by George R. R. Martin), cooking (anything with pasta is a hit), and writing (magical worlds with obstinate teen girls is always a favorite).
In 2012 Fiona Thorn and the Carapacem Spell was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Southern California Book Festival. Later that year Barton was named 1st Runner Up in America’s Next Author for her compelling short story of an old woman trapped in her own body, “Movin’ On Up.”
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