Born to Read

Sherman's marker Milledgeville
So, not Sacred Heart Catholic?

I grew up hating General Sherman, incensed that he had quartered his troops’ horses in our church in Milledgeville while burning his way to the sea. I had vivid memories of the bronze historic marker outside the church and remembered it as one of my earliest reading experiences. It was an embarrassing number of years later—decades, really—when my brother, upon hearing my story, informed me that Sherman quartered his horses in St. Stephen’s Episcopal, not our church, Sacred Heart Catholic, and that he likely did so in order to preserve the building, unlike the other structures in town. He also said that Sherman marched to the sea, burning as he went, in order to bring the war to a precipitous close while we still had a country left. I harrumphed something to the effect of, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” but in matters historical Allan always reigns supreme. It seems that Google agrees with him.

Although it appears that I was not reading bronze historical markers at a precocious age, I was a solid member of the Cat in the Hat Book Club. I eagerly awaited the delivery of the two books that came every month in a cardboard box, ripping the box open as I walked back to the house from the mailbox across our sleepy street. Mom and I would sit on the living room sofa and make our way through the likes of Green Eggs and Ham and Go, Dog, Go! Looking back at these brilliant beginning readers, I now realize that, despite my preference for phonics instruction, I probably learned to read by sight, just catching on to the fact that most letters have the same sounds all the time. My mom was never a teacher, but like most mothers of her day, she sat patiently and read aloud, running her finger along the words as she went. We got it. By the time we arrived in school—first grade, as there was no compulsory kindergarten—we were tracking along with Dick and Jane, those sight readers extraordinaire that raised a whole generation of kids.

Milledgeville LibraryNot long afterward, my friend Dee’s mom took us to the library downtown. Dee Hammond and I had met because our mothers found out that we had both had benign tumors that had been removed when we were toddlers. Had Dee been a child today, she would have proudly displayed the Potteresque scar on her forehead, but as it was, she daintily covered it with a fringe of bangs. The public library was located in an imposing Greek Revival building on the campus of the Georgia Women’s College, and as we walked into the children’s section, Dee went to the picture books and I went to the chapter books.

“Don’t read those! Those books are for babies. Look at these!” Evidently, I didn’t understand the library value of not criticizing other people’s reading choices in those days.

“Those books are too hard for me!”

“No, they’re not. Look!” I opened up a copy of Eddie the Dog Holder, or some other Carolyn Haywood favorite, and she peered in.

“I can read that!” she exclaimed, and we happily picked out one book apiece to take back to her house and read on her parents’ big bed while her mother ironed. I distinctly recall that her mother said not one word, only looked on, smiling, during my very first reader’s advisory transaction. It took me forty years to figure out that I could get paid for this.

First Girl I Saw in Pants
The first girl I ever saw wearing pants.

I actually lived in Dick and Jane’s world. Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy and Eddie were the kids that I saw around me. Boys wore dungarees and loved their dogs. Girls were blond, with pigtails or ponytails, and wore cotton dresses that poofed out right from the armpits. I did not see a girl in pants until I was school-aged and my parents had some friends visit from Massachusetts. I asked my mom, “Is she a boy?” She was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that her own daughters wore dresses every single day of the year, and so did all of their friends.

Most glaringly of all, every single child in all of the popular children’s books of that time was white. No exceptions. How in the world did the adults of the 1960s expect children of all races and ethnicities to enjoy reading when they never saw anyone who looked like them or their families in books? As a children’s book selector today, I can rejoice that so many writers have answered the call to create literature for every child. You can peruse some of the titles on my book review blog, EatReadSleep, to see that some of the best writing for children is coming from diverse authors.

We were not wealthy, but we did have the advantage of our Greatest Generation parents, who were determined that their children would have a better life and a better education than they did. Thanks to them, I learned to read early and never stopped. Read to your little ones. Run your fingers under the words in beginning readers. Let them see you reading. Read together as a family. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

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American Ferry Tales

Jamestown View from the Ferry
Jamestown Monument and Settlement as seen from the ferry.

No grocery stores for miles, flat tires, little boys running around with guns, and gale-force winds. It was a perfect vacation.

Our extended family, or at least five old people and a teenaged boy, spent a week in April in Surry, Virginia, touring the historic towns of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, besides hanging out on the front porch watching the James River flow by while a pair of bald eagles feathered their nest in our yard. Unfortunately for our teenager, no one would agree to ride the roller coasters at Busch Gardens with him, so his week may have been quieter than he had hoped.

Cormorants Nesting by Ferry
These cormorants are busy ignoring the ferry passengers.

It is true that there was no internet connection, but it only took a few days for my hands to stop trembling. The ferry, however, was only a mile away, and it was our connection to civilization. It was free, ran on the half-hour, and landed right in Jamestown. We began to arrange our lives by the ferry schedule. Mornings were easy, as we always slept in, and evenings were spent bundled in afghans on the porch in this ridiculously interminable winter. In between, we soaked up history.

Jamestown Ship
Three months on a tossing sea in these tiny ships? The bunks are too small for 21st century folks.

Jamestown is the oldest successful English settlement in North America. “Successful,” because Roanoke, North Carolina is older, but it disappeared. “Oldest,” because the tour guides want you to know that it was around for thirteen years before the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and if you forget, they will continue to remind you. Although the original museum is interesting, and the replicas of their ships are fun to climb on, if you drive one more mile to the original settlement site, you can see the monument of their landing and the archaeological digs that are underway. Here there is a second museum with skeletons and other morbidly fascinating artifacts.

Jamestown John Rolfe
John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas

If possible, join a guided tour by a ranger or a reenactor. We were fortunate to have the same tour guide, Dick Cheatham, at Yorktown and at Jamestown, where he dressed as John Rolfe, the man who married Pocahontas and introduced tobacco to Europe, which finally made the settlement self-supporting. The tour guides can help you to understand the movement of thought behind the physical structures, the reasons for the rejection of European models and the growth of the American worldview that resulted in the Revolutionary War. In Jamestown, the settlers suffered through and abolished the rigid English class system, tried socialism and died by the hundreds, and then settled on hard work and egalitarianism. The words of the Declaration of Independence didn’t descend from an ivory tower.

The capital of Virginia moved to Williamsburg in the 1690s because, as Powhatan had told them decades earlier, the water in Jamestown was unhealthy. The village in Historic Williamsburg now shows colonial life at its height. In the governor’s palace, we learned that the colonial leaders were strong monarchists and had no use for Parliament, which did nothing but levy taxes on them. Therefore, there are huge portraits of English kings hanging all over the palace. Williamsburg Striped MapThe maps on the walls show North America divided into horizontal stripes, with the holdings of the English, French, and Spanish in pastel colors. The existing residents were ignored, of course. The pink area of Virginia was carefully detailed on the east coast, with a straight-edged stripe leading off to the west coast, which is not shown. The crown of England was not sure exactly what the western edge of North America looked like, but they claimed it anyway. Although the governor kept a standing army, every male person above the age of sixteen had to have a weapon with ammunition and know how to use it. The army and the militia were separate, and the governor did not support the militia in any way. Interesting tidbits for our contemporary discussions of the second amendment. Wooden muskets and tri-cornered hats are sold in the market, and every little boy in town was running around in a red-state euphoria. I can still remember touring Williamsburg when I was a teenager, going from building to building, watching colonial craftsmen and -women plying their trades: candle making, book binding, and tailoring, to name a few. They are all still there! The very beautiful Episcopal church is still an active congregation and seems to have a rather prickly relationship with Historic Williamsburg.

Williamsburg Family Palace
Arriving at the palace, but not dressed for the ball.

After a quiet day of reading, we went to Yorktown on Thursday. For some reason, I was less enthusiastic about this one at first, probably because it was military history.

Yorktown Thomas Nelson
Dick Cheatham again, this time as Thomas Nelson

But ah, here was Dick Cheatham, this time dressed as Thomas Nelson, one of the many Thomas Nelsons in his illustrious family. He led us around the village, telling stories as he went, and what became clear to me was how providential our history is. There were so many times, from Jamestown to Yorktown and beyond, when we very nearly didn’t make it. It is as much a wonder that we are not British subjects today as that the whole world is not speaking German since World War II. While ordinary people are working hard to put food on the table, their leaders are busily arranging history. If it had not been for the French, we could not possibly have won our war for independence. If it had not been for the resistance at Yorktown, we would be watching The Crown as our own story. The Moore House, where the Articles of Capitulation were written, is nearby. After walking through the village and admiring the York River, you can jump in your car and ride around on the driving tour, where you will see berms built for cannons, battlefields, and the Surrender Field, which is— May I just say it since I refused to leave the car?— a field.

Yorktown Surrender Room
This is the actual room where Articles of Negotiation were drawn up for the British to surrender in the Revolutionary War.
Jamestown Church floor
Jamestown Church floor undergoing excavation

We returned to Jamestown a second time on Friday in order to learn more about the extensive diggings going on in the church and all over the grounds. Since the vast majority of the settlers died in the first ten years, the place is one big unmarked grave. It also took that long before the first group of women arrived, apparently after the investors figured out the answer to the problem, “I wonder why the population in our Virginia settlement never seems to increase. Hmm….” Had it not been for the friendship between ten-year-old Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, no one would have survived the harshest winter. Pocahontas risked her life to smuggle food into the fenced-off compound. In addition, John Smith was the first commoner to lead the settlement, and he had very different ideas about manual labor than the gentlemen who preceeded him.

Jamestown John Smith statueJamestown Sacagawea Statue

Although John Smith and Pocahontas both have statues at Jamestown, they were never married or romantically involved at all. Sorry, Disney.

Surrey House from Beach
Up on a hill overlooking the James River, the front porch makes for glorious views.

Surrey House Family Room Kitchen

 

Our house in Surry was perfect for our group. Lots of common space, but generously sized bedrooms, as well. Deer in the backyard, eagles in the front. There is also a front living room, so there are two separate conversation areas. In this picture of the family room, dining area, and kitchen, we had taken a leaf out of the table to fit a birthday party tablecloth for my brother-in-law. My sister found the house on Home Away:  https://www.vrbo.com/993515.

 

In the midst of the current madness, historic Virginia is a bracing reminder of the unique character of our nation. From struggling settlement to proud British colonists to rebellious subjects, these three towns will teach you and your children about the cost of freedom, the need for a thoughtful and informed citizenry, and the perilously fragile nature of liberty.