Reading books on the phone with my grandson made us both feel good

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

When my 54 year old wife passed away in 2015, I found myself with a gaping hole of loneliness in my life. My adult sons and their families lived across the country. My only grandson, Tristan, was eight at the time and lived in Toronto. The phone conversations between us usually consisted of question-and-answer sessions which left me feeling frustrated and unfamiliar with how he spent his days or what made him tick. I felt that we needed a mutual interest that could keep the channels of communication open in a meaningful way for both of us. It occurred to me that we could try reading together over the phone, as we had always enjoyed reading together when we saw each other in person. But don’t just take my word for it …

Tristan : When Grandpa suggested that we start reading together, I was quite skeptical. Much to my father’s disappointment, I had always been a reluctant reader (except for graphic novels), and I couldn’t imagine what an interest Grandpa would have in reading the types of books I loved. However, dad explained how difficult and lonely it was for Grandpa and asked me to at least give it a try. It was important to find books that we could both identify with and appreciate in some way or another, but we found it not too easy when faced with a 67 year age gap! Once Grandpa and I agreed to try one of the first books my father suggested – The one and only Ivan – he ordered a copy for each of us. Since Grandpa is “old school,” we agreed to just read each other over the phone, without video; our goal was to read three or four evenings a week for as short or as long as fatigue or other commitments would allow.

Graham: By lining up the books we’ve read together on my library, I see how our reading choices have evolved over the past six years (and it continues). At first our selections tended to be quite traditional (Pax, The lion butterfly), books that may have evoked memories of my own childhood reading, but we gradually moved on to more eclectic choices and more stimulating topics and themes (Haroun and the sea of ​​stories, The curious incident of the dog during the night, Animal farm). Some books have marked one of us more than the other. I particularly liked that of Edith Nesbit Children of the railroads, in part because I was going to school on the steam train (sometimes even, illegally, on the step), but it was a little too innocent and old-fashioned for Tristan’s taste. On the other hand, that of Emma Donoghue Plus One Lotteries, featuring a diverse family and their struggles to assimilate a grandfather with dementia, was perhaps a little too close to home for me but very relevant for Tristan! On the other hand, we were both captivated by the worlds of Kenneth Oppel. Idea and The nest.

Tristan : Reading with grandfather allowed me to enrich my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation and expression. Grandpa did amateur theater when he was young, so he tends to be critical of the way I read things out loud. Of course, it’s a two-way street: I explain unfamiliar sports terms and slang to Grandpa, and he explains phrases and expressions that I don’t understand (especially if the book we’re reading is particularly English).

Graham: In early 2020, COVID-19 caused lockdowns, disrupting everyone’s lives overnight. With the prospect of seeing each other again in person far away, our reading together became even more important. Then the police murders of George Floyd and others, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, brought attention to racial injustice in a non-ignorable way. Tristan’s mother is black and these issues affect a mixed race teenager closely, but he was not necessarily comfortable talking about it with his elderly white grandfather. I realized that reading could be an indirect way for us to approach these topics, so her dad and I looked for books that could spark some discussion. Stamp by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, The hate you give by Angie Thomas and Just mercy by Bryan Stevenson were among the books we’ve since read and discussed together.

Tristan : Reading with Grandpa makes me take the time to read and plan my other interests like basketball and the PS4 around our time together. We read books that are more empowering and expansive than the ones I would probably choose on my own and it’s great to talk about this with someone who has so much more life experience than I have. Better yet, reading together gave Grandpa a chance to find out what’s going on in my life while allowing me to keep an eye on him as well.

Graham: Last August, Tristan and I were finally able to meet in person in Vancouver. Reading took precedence over outdoor activities like basketball, tennis, and swimming, but we still inserted a few pages on most days of his visit. I realize that our literary bridge will be strained as Tristan progresses into his teenage years and other interests take over, but for now we continue to pick new books together. At the very least, I hope I have been able to share my love of reading and my belief in the importance of words in the age of ubiquitous social media and “fake news”.

Perhaps the words Tristan and I enjoyed reading together the most are in The lost words, a richly illustrated book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris that lists words for plants and animals that have started to disappear from children’s dictionaries due to their obsolescence. It contains wonderful poetry, augmented with stunning works of art, and it becomes especially alive to us when read together, sitting side by side.

Together we realized how much words matter in times like these, when they are too often thrown out without thinking too much about their consequences.

Tristan Rawlings lives in Toronto; Graham Rawlings lives in Vancouver.

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About Marcia G. Hussain

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