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Essay: Reading Material


If we’re very lucky, one of our enduring memories is being read to by one or both of our parents. Lake Effect essayist Joanne Nelson was fortunate enough to have that experience:

At night my mother and I would crawl into her bed with potato chips and a bowl of her homemade dip between us, the family dog at our feet, tail thumping, always hopeful. We ignored his begging and concentrated on our reading material; me with my Little House books, Mom with her Good Housekeeping and McCall’s.

A radio taking up most of the end table played next to her, the host’s voice soothing and indistinct, just a hum in the background to me. My mother listened closely though, and looked up from her magazine if callers with familiar problems got through to her favorite call-in show. The women upset about their hearts racing every time they left the house, or their husbands not listening to them were her favorites. She’d lift her hand in a be quiet signal if I crinkled the potato chip bag too loudly, her head turned towards the wood console of the radio as if listening to a friend.

Every now and then my father peeked in with a comment. “It’s a damn library in here,” he’d say or, “When’s she going to bed?” Then he’d shake his head and walk away. Back to the basement and his T.V. Back to the shows he watched from an easy chair, bottle of Pabst in his hand, clutched tight against his body. Sometimes we’d find him asleep like that, chin drooping to his chest, rising and falling with each breath as if in a continuous nod, some constant agreement with the room, the bottle of beer tilting, tilting, but never spilling.

He was wrong about it being a library in there. There was that radio after all, the confident male questions and hesitant feminine answers giving the evening a certain cadence. And there was our creamy onion dip and the bag of salty chips on the blankets between us as we read. One chip after another dipped into the dish, occasionally our hands colliding when we reached in at the same time, the thunk of my mother’s wedding ring against the side of the metal bowl a harsh sound in the quiet bedroom.

Essayist Joanne Nelson is an educator and writer living in Hartland. She is the nonfiction editor for a literary journal, The Tishman Review.

Joanne Nelson is the author of the memoir, This is How We Leave, forthcoming from Vine Leaves Press. Her writing appears in anthologies and literary journals such as Brevity, the Citron Review, the museum of americana, and Redivider. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wis., where she develops and leads community programs, maintains a psychotherapy practice, and adjuncts. More information about Joanne Nelson can be found here.