Reading & Dreams

by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

After not writing for a while, I feel like I have to say something that will amaze the whole room. Impossible. My mind feels stale, so I’ve been reading instead of writing.

I got The Portable Chekhov from the library. I’ve never read him before. The first story was Vanka, about the apprentice boy writing to his grandfather on Christmas Eve, begging to come home. After he finishes writing, he addresses the letter, “To Grandfather in the village.” Then:

Vanka ran to the nearest letter box and thrust the precious letter into the slit.

An hour later, lulled by sweet hopes, he was fast asleep. In his dream he saw the stove. On the stove sat his grandfather, his bare legs hanging down, and read the letter to the cooks. Near the stove was Wriggles, wagging his tail.

(Something wrong with the next-to-last sentence there—I blame the translator.) Anyway, I just about bawled. The kid, nine years old, is a slave. And an orphan. And besides all the work and chores and getting hit and hardly getting anything to eat, he has to rock the baby at night when he’s so tired.

The suffering of children is an impossible subject. (I’m thinking of Jane Eyre and her stupid frozen oatmeal.) How different, how opposite, this story was from that. This story felt earned. He nailed it. But I shouldn’t pick on Jane Eyre too much. I read the Reader’s Digest Condensed Edition under the covers with a flashlight when I was probably around ten.

While I was reading the Chekhov story, I was touched, transported, lost in happy-sadness and admiration—and through it all, I had my own nine-year-old boy in mind, and I’m not sure when it darted through my head: maybe he should be doing a little more around the house.

You never really lose yourself in reading. At least I don’t. Or I haven’t since the Jane Eyre days.

Meanwhile, my nine-year-old drifts off to sleep like this:

“Mom?”

“What?”

“I’m planning to say the S-H word in my dreams.”

 

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