Mom thought she was extremely clever to have had three girls first, so we could be trained to do cooking, cleaning and childcare, while she supervised. (Ultimately, there were 11 of us—five boys and six girls. I was the third of this brood.) Mom envisioned herself cast either as Marmie in Little Women or as the mother in Cheaper by the Dozen. She read both books to us during nap times, fondly hoping we would take the hint and pattern our behavior on those endearingly obedient fictional children.
Alas, we were a boisterous, high-spirited lot, and most of us were completely impervious to direction. She and Dad were forever coming up with intricately detailed chore schedules, but getting us to do anything in a timely fashion was like trying to teach a can of worms to tap dance.
Although Mom was hopeless at getting us to do the dishes, nap times were something else. I hear today’s young mothers lament that their 3-year-olds no longer take naps. (Is it a choice?) Mom was amazingly resourceful at enforcing nap times. Until we reached 12 years of age, she had each of us march into the parental bedroom for a nap every day we were at home. She was motivated. She really needed a nap herself.
In retrospect, those naps were wonderful. I remember the heat of a Fort Worth summer in the late 1950s when Texas was in the grip of a drought. Mom asserted that anyone who went outdoors between noon and 4 in the afternoon would surely suffer heatstroke. We didn’t have central air conditioning. What we had was one of those ancient black oscillating fans and a swamp cooler in one of the windows in Mom and Dad’s bedroom.
So after lunch, the babies were tucked up on the bed with Mom, and the rest of us would stretch out on pallets on the floor. We jostled for the prime real estate—spots blessed by an intermittent breeze from the fan and a safe distance from Mom. It was also desirable to be near the door, to make for an easy escape when Mom began to doze.
Mom would send one of us out to cut a switch, with which she reigned from the middle of her bed. This was in the days before anyone had ever thought of the term “child abuse.” The parenting catchphrase of the day was “spare the rod and spoil the child.” I suppose this philosophy made for a sort of armed truce between parent and child. We knew instinctively how to press close to the boundaries of acceptable behavior, without stepping into punishable territory.
I always tried to cut the shortest switch I could find, then situate my pallet out of Mom’s reach. Some of the boys had a reverse strategy. They would cut the longest, thickest, thorniest switch they could find, on the theory that Mom would be ashamed to use it on her dear cherubs. That strategy could backfire, depending on the audacity of the miscreants.
I remember when I was too young to remember; when my older sisters were off at school during nap time. Mom would tell me to snuggle up, with my back to hers, to keep her back warm as we settled in for our nap. I suspect this was more to keep me from trying to slip away when she dozed than for warmth. Mom would begin with a small children’s book, like The Three Bears; then she’d switch to reading aloud from whatever book or magazine interested her on that day.
I remember in my bones the timbre of her voice, the soothing sound and feel of it and the comfort and security as she read and I dozed.
Mom read Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Black Beauty and many other books to us. She loved doing the character’s voices and was pretty good at it. Those stories fused with our dreams and our collective myths as we listened and dozed, so that the line between our lives and the adventures of the characters in those classic stories was slightly blurry.
The older kids resisted nap time, but with the heat, the drone of the fans and Mom’s distinctive reading style, most of us ended up asleep on the floor in spite of ourselves.
Some of the sibling pool, notably my brothers, would sneak out as soon as they could get away with it.
I, however, was born to nap and was well into the third grade before I could stay awake after lunch. When Miss Turpin, then Miss Maloney, then Miss Griffith told us to rest our heads on our desks for a moment after lunch recess, I was a goner, cheek stuck to the surface of my desk, deep in slumber and drooling. I’ve never been able to listen to taped books while driving. No matter how compelling the story, the sound of someone reading, combined with the drone of the road, is my cue to nod off. But I’ve always loved to read, especially on a hot afternoon.
It must have been heaven for Mom, to have us all quiet, however briefly. But of course, we were the beneficiaries. Her reading gave us wings and is responsible for my lifelong love of books and a good story well told.
The third edition of Anne Isham’s book Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight: The Chocoholic’s Survival Guide and Practical Handbook is due out in September. The independent chocolatier still naps whenever she gets the chance.