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Author’s program note. It happened when I was deep in a brown study on some suitably recondite conundrum of cosmic significance. There, walking along the uneven sidewalk that lines the Common, there right in front of me I saw two lucky people who only had eyes for each other. Their presence was arresting; taking me immediately out of myself, focusing full attention on them, two people learning just how exciting and fulfilling togetherness can be.
You’re skipping ahead of me now I daresay. You’re expecting one young thing entwined with another, in love perhaps, or making good progress thereto. But if you think this, you’d be wrong, quite utterly mistaken. For the two people I saw, and could not take my eyes off, were a young father and his young daughter. He looked to be on the sunny side of thirty; she was three or four. And a more enraptured couple I did not see that day… nor had I seen for long before. They only had eyes for each other.
The young father was in the process of enchanting his daughter; he was very much in the middle of not merely telling her a story… but acting it out. His animals were not just words from his mouth. They lived! They moved! They entranced! He didn’t merely talk of their movements… he moved as they would in life, going where they meant to go…. and to show her deep and sincere appreciation for his constant efforts and exertions… she laughed, completely, merrily, with a glee she had already mastered… and which she spent liberally, recompense for her adored father.
No wonder I couldn’t take my eyes off this scene of radiance and sunshine. I could only wish them both one thing to make what they had perfect… and that was the gift of clear memory.
After a minute or two my way diverged from theirs; they went on without thought or recognition or acknowledgement that such a one as me even lived. And whether it was because of this thought or one like it, I felt tears. It’s the kind of thing that happens to too many silly old buffers if they’ve dined unwisely but too well or dwelt too long on things that might have been… and why they squandered so many opportunities, because they were certain they’d come again, but didn’t.
6 or 7 or so, the softest hands, the most caressing voice.
Then my own memory yanked me as it so often does these days. And I was not pining about might-have-beens and loves I tossed away without thought, doubt or pangs. Instead I heard a voice I knew as well as my own, a voice that represented all I valued and had every reason to be grateful for. Her voice. And this voice didn’t just rise from memory. I heard it because she was there with me again… and everything was there, just as it should be. And just as it all sounded sixty years ago and more.
“My little love, do you feel a little better? I have something you’ll like.” And she always did. A book. A tale carefully considered before being read to me; sometimes one she knew I loved; sometimes one she was certain I would come to love, because she already did. Thus in her own soothing hands she would bring me, between covers, pages sometimes not yet cut, the unimaginable riches of the world, sometimes when I was ill; sometimes to sooth the way to dreamless slumber. And no matter how much she gave me, there was always more summoned by her practised magic. But the real magic did not come between covers with uncut pages; nor even with tales of mesmerizing effect. The supremest spell was the one wrought by her voice and a few deft movements which denoted care, craft, artistry and above all else, love.
“By the shores of Gitche Gumee.”
Given a moment or two, a hint and a clue, I could probably name everything she read to me… not just because of the lyric power of the authors’ words but because of her voice. Its cadence. Its resonance. Its sonority. Its shear beauty and allure. Each word counted and so she neglected no word. Each line counted and so she delivered each line. Each paragraph counted… and so not a single paragraph was overlooked or forgotten. Thus, she rendered one of our favorites; “The Song of Hiawatha” by my near neighbor on Brattle Street, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published to universal acclaim in 1855. I can hear her now… see her… she lives on as I hear her reading the words she loved:
“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.”
But her magic was by no means exhausted, hardly even begun. For now she told me to close my eyes, to see the shores of Gitche Gumee, the shining Big-Sea-Water, the wigwam, and most of all Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon Nokomis. And as she bade, so I did until these were no longer mere words, but grand vistas, places of consequence and truth. Such was the magic of her voice.
“But there is no joy in Mudville.”
One of her favorites, which became one of mine, was “Casey at the Bat”, “A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.” It was written by Ernest Thayer, and first published in “The San Francisco Examiner” on June 3, 1888. No voice ever delivered it with greater gusto and the American idiom than she, perhaps because she was a zealous supporter of her hapless Cubbies, the Chicago Cubs. Thus, as she spoke she made every captivating gesture:
“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.”
“And the highwayman came riding.”
Over the years, in sickness and in health, her voice unlocked one treasure chest after another… Thomas Gray, Tennyson, Frost, Sandburg, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Browning, Dylan Thomas… but this was always one of her favorites, for her dramatic sense worked well with Alfred Noyes, the great poet of the empire on which the sun never set, ruled by the Great White Queen after whom my grandmother was named. He published it in 1906, and it made him a world figure.
“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding — Riding — riding — The highwayman came riding up to the old inn-door.”
And, as was now usual, she closed my eyes and opened my mind’s eye to see the ghostly galleon, the ribbon of moonlight, and the highwayman, “a bunch of lace at his chin”, the highwayman who kept riding, riding, riding. With every word, with every image, she helped make me the man I am today. Your children deserve as much from you, and as you love them, do so; for this is one certain way to ensure not just their constant improvement but that you and your voice descend to them and keep you a forever living presence in their lives.
For the musical accompaniment to this article, I’ve selected the brilliant suite composed by Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. It is called “Scheherazade”. It’s the story of a shrewd woman whose ability to keep the Sultan amused by telling stories kept her alive. Based on “One Thousand and One Nights,” my mother loved it from its opening bass motif to every evocative note that follows. She was always happy to acknowledge the talents of other wizards and soothsayers. You’ll find it in any search engine. Go now and play it. Its richness enriches this article… and will do the same for you.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
About the Author
Dr. Jeffrey Lant is known worldwide. He started in the media business when he was 5 years old, a Kindergartner in Downers Grove, Illinois, publishing his first newspaper article. Since then Dr. Lant has earned four college degrees, including the PhD from Harvard. He has taught at over 40 colleges and universities, quite possibly the first to offer satellite courses. He has written over 30 books, thousands of articles and been a welcome guest on hundreds of radio and television programs. He has founded several successful corporations and businesses including his latest at …writerssecrets.com
His memoirs “A Connoisseur’s Journey” has garnered eight prizes that ensure its classic status. Its subtitle is “Being the artful memoirs of a man of wit, discernment, pluck, and joy.” A good read by this man of so many letters. Such a man can offer you thousands of insights into the business of becoming a successful writer. Be sure to sign up now at www.writerssecrets.co
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