My great nephew was seven-years-old when he first set foot on my dark blue Palace Garden Aubusson rug. My niece Judy and her husband, both medical researchers, were offered the opportunity to go on an 18-month mission to an obscure Island of Microbiological Eccentricities, and they asked me if I would take care of Xavier for the duration.
I said “Yes,” neither enthusiastically nor reluctantly, as I really knew nothing of the child except for the occasional photograph that Judy had sent me: a shock of unruly red hair. A pug nose. A wide smiling mouth. And enough freckles to fill a baseball mitt. Not that, in the academic environment in which he was raised, he had ever played baseball or owned a bat.
Xavier was being brought up, Judy told me, as a Leader of the 22nd Century, meaning that he could write computer programs, build robots, and communicate with millions of people on social media platforms, although (I was reading between the lines) he did not seem to have a single flesh and blood friend with comic books under his bed or scabs-on-his-knees.
When I said “Yes” to her request, it was with only one caveat. “Judy,” I insisted, “I am not changing my lifestyle for Xavier. He will have to change his to accommodate me.”
Her three-syllable response – hardly worthy, I thought, of a multi-disciplinary scientist – was merely to shrug and say, “Whatever.”
Many memorable things happened during the months that Xavier spent with me.
I could tell you about our bike rides through the Skokie Lagoons, finding fossil rocks on the Glencoe Beach, the garden we planted in my backyard, the classic movies I introduced him to (his favorite was The Jackie Robinson Story), or even his joy at becoming a pitcher on his Little League team. But what I most want to tell you about is what happened when this progeny of parents whose every minute was spent looking at reality through the prism of technology, saw his first…book.
I should interject here a few things about myself. My late husband was an art director at an advertising agency. From my parents I inherited a store that sells art supplies, art books, small gifts, and posters. Both my husband and I were great readers, and all five of our children (now scattered to the four winds) are ravenous readers, too. Our home library has over 1,000 books, many of which are for youngsters.
One night a few days after Xavier came to stay with me, we watched the movie Old Yeller, based on Fred Gibson’s book of the same title. I thought my grand-nephew would like to see what was changed and what had stayed the same from the novel, so I plucked a copy off my bookshelf. It was a 1956 first edition with a dust jacket showing a boy holding a rifle across his lap with an adoring dog in his arms.
I handed it to Xavier.
First he looked up at me, a question in his befuddled eyes. Then he scrutinized the book, turning it this way and that. Unsatisfied with his inspection, he looked back at me and asked, “How do I turn it on?”
Next came questions about the microphone, the multi-touch display, the headset jack, and the status bar. His biggest concern was the location of the camera (“Of course,” he insisted, a book would have a camera; he took a smart phone out of his pocket and showed it to me. I confiscated the device pending the return of his parents).
What followed was really quite lovely. I pulled dozens of old tomes off my shelves and spread them on the table before us. This included works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, O. Henry, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
We settled ourselves on my sofa, and I explained the inner and outer workings of what is commonly called “a book.” I showed Xavier the front cover, the spine, the headcap, the end paper, and the text block. I explained how a copyright page guarantees ownership of intellectual property. We went on to discuss paper quality, and why so few contemporary books have feathered edges. We studied dedication pages, chapter divisions, prologues, epilogues, and…wonder-of-wonders…illustrations!
Then we took turns reading aloud from Old Yeller, stained the last page with teardrops, and gloried in the incomparable satisfaction of crying over a really good book.
As the weeks and months progressed, when Xavier sat down to read, he no longer looked for a display screen or an on-off switch, having learned that both were amply provided for by his mind and his imagination. Also during his stay, he came across the vintage IBM Selectric typewriter that I keep in my home office. He promptly fell in love with it, and his fascination is such that…well, suffice to say, he now types 57 words per minute, and I know what I’m going to buy him for his next birthday.
Xavier will be with me only three more weeks, and I am going to miss him. What will my niece and her husband think after they return from their microbiological expedition? Will they approve of their son’s newfound old-fashioned skills? Will they disapprove? Will they notice? Will they care?
When Judy was 16-years-old, I took her to see Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, and she cried for twenty minutes past the final curtain.
Judy is a nice girl.
One can but hope for the best.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2021.
Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com