During my four years at college, I was in a fraternity. Delta Chi. Best group of goofballs I’ve ever known. We didn’t just party and watch sports. We actually had a somewhat positive impact on the community. There were committees made up of a few guys who oversaw whatever focus that particular committee had. Mine was Philanthropy.
When I ran the Philanthropy committee, I got in touch with the community public library, which just happened to be right across the street from our small campus. One afternoon a week, and sometimes on Saturday mornings, some of the guys would volunteer an hour to read to little kids.
It is quite a sight to see a group of nineteen year olds whose sole focus is to chase girls all of the sudden melt into caring young men while they read to kids who are absolutely delighted by their mere presence. They pretended to be bored by it, but I had over a dozen guys signing up for the duty by our third week.
We ended up starting a second group on Saturday mornings. The kids in the community really came out for it, and now it’s a continuous project even though I graduated years ago.
I became a high school English teacher, which is fulfilling in itself, but I quickly started to miss reading to the kids. So, I started up a new program at my hometown’s public library on Tuesday afternoons.
The library staff was very helpful, and we decorated a usually vacant room to appeal to kids. There were colorful posters all over the walls depicting scenes in famous children’s books. Lots of popular characters throughout children’s fiction. We even had huge stuffed animals they could sit in (or on) that were characters they would recognize.
My first Tuesday afternoon was a disappointment. One kid showed up. Just one. He was five. I started with what I thought was a safe choice in Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat. This kid rolled his eyes and said, “Boring.” A five year old kid rolling his eyes at me. So, I asked him what he preferred, and he mentioned the Frog and Toad series.
I read all three books the library had while his mother sat at the back of the room, smiling like a hostage making the best of the situation. Clearly this kid had ultra-refined tastes, and his mother had not been able to satiate them yet.
The next week, four more kids showed up, but not the eye-roller. They liked the Dr. Seuss options, and I chalked it up to a success. Signs of progress.
It went on like this for another month. More kids started showing up, and by my third month, I regularly had twenty kids. Many return customers, but always a few new faces.
Then, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I received a whole new audience. They arrived in a bus from the St. Mary’s Assisted Living facility, a few miles on the edge of town. Fifteen older folks on their weekly outing to the library.
It turns out, they usually have their library outings on Wednesdays, but with Thanksgiving that week, they had to make an adjustment. They meandered around the library, and the kids seemed somewhat distracted as they milled about on the other side of our room’s windows.
About halfway through A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, a sweet rosy-cheeked woman stuck her head through the doorway with a huge grin. She eyed all the kids and seemed overjoyed at how they all gathered for story time.
Quietly, she said, “Is it ok if I join you?”
I have to admit, I was a little caught off guard, but I said, “Of course.”
All the kids were sitting on the floor, and I realized that wouldn’t do for our new member.
So, I pointed at the line of orange chairs pushed to the wall and said, “James, can you help our new friend here, Mrs.—?”
James popped up and ran to chairs, dragging one behind the group of kids sitting on the carpet. The woman clasped her hands in front of her chest with such appreciation and said, “Millie. You can call me Millie.”
After she sat down, I resumed the story. By the end, four more from her group had joined us.
Over the next three weeks, our room was filled with at least twenty kids, and now fifteen to twenty retirees from St. Mary’s. They had changed the day of their weekly excursion to the library to coincide with my reading hour.
Feeling bad that they had to listen to kids’ stories, I came up with an idea. After story time was over on a Tuesday in December, I approached the group from St. Mary’s. I had gotten to know several of them, along with all the kids. One man in particular was always so kind to me. Frank. He thanked me every week as if I had done some huge favor for him.
Frank was a sturdy man, as if he still had the muscles he had built through his decades as a carpenter. He had wispy white hair, always neatly combed. And he always wore a look of anticipated happiness, if that makes any sense. Like he was waiting for something to light him up. And it usually did. He was delighted by the smallest things. Which made him a friendly man. Soft spoken.
“Thank you for coming, everyone. I was wondering something though. Would you like to have an hour every week when I read more—grown up stories, just for you? I mean, separate from the kids’ hour. Of course, you are always welcome to come to the children’s hour on Tuesdays, but if you would like to hear some others, maybe even novels, I would love to add another hour. Maybe on Thursdays. Or any day that works for you.”
They all murmured in surprise. Frank put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We’ve already imposed on you enough. You don’t have to do that. We are content with coming on Tuesdays.”
I said, “Oh no, it’s not an imposition at all. I love doing it. Actually, I was hoping you would want me to read something just for you all. We could start a novel and read it over the course of several weeks, like a series. Anything.”
They talked among themselves and quickly agreed. Making sure I really wanted to. Of course I did. They pay attention with the same innocence and alacrity as the children. I can’t even begin to describe how happy it makes me that so many people, young and old, show up to story hour.
So, I added an hour on Saturday mornings for the St. Mary’s group. The room filled up at the inaugural meeting, and ballooned from there. The week before Christmas, I asked my new friends how they would feel if I came to their facility on Christmas night to read A Christmas Carol. They loved the idea immediately, and so it was set.
When I got to St. Mary’s, I saw they had adorned their recreation room with wonderful Christmas decorations. They spent the week with colored construction paper, streamers, big balls of cotton, and lots of glue, making them. The joyful parallel to the kids was amazing. Their enthusiasm was contagious.
That night, in a darkened room lit only by a few candles and the twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, I read them the story. A Christmas Carol. It was the single greatest time I had reading to anyone either at the library or here. They loved it. We drank punch, had a lot of sugary treats, and made a party of it.
At the end of the night, I sat down at one of the circular tables with the red and green paper thrown across it with Frank. We talked for over an hour. I found out he was 92 years old, a retired carpenter, and a Korean War veteran. After telling him more about myself, he got to me in a way I had not expected.
Frank was quiet for a moment, then looked up at me with a slight quiver in his lips.
He said, “What you’re doing for us, I hope you know it’s really something special. But for me, it even more so. You see, my wife, Beverly, passed away two years ago. She and I actually came here back in 2018. My eyes are shot, I can barely walk without all of my joints screaming, and we don’t have any other family to speak of. Beverly was a librarian. Her eyes were still good, great actually. But she had MS. She used to read to me every night. I’d fall asleep with my head in her lap, her hand on my face or in my hair. And I’d listen to her sweet voice read me to sleep.”
I actually felt my eyes tear up a little thinking about Frank and Beverly, falling asleep every night together here in this place. They never had any kids, no siblings to speak of. It was just them. They had each other, and as long as they did, they were perfect.
Frank continued, “Having you read to us, it makes me think of my wife. And being in that library, it makes me feel closer to her again. She was the most gentle woman in the whole world. My angel. I knew she was too good for me the moment I met her, but I never had the heart to tell her so I married her before she could figure it out.”
I laughed at this as a tear spilled down my cheek. Frank’s eyes were wet too, but he chuckled. I reached out to grab his hand. I don’t know why I did it, but I could see the love in this man’s eyes. He missed his dear Beverly so much. And in some way, I brought a little bit of her back to him.
We talked a little longer, but it was getting late, and I was sure Frank wanted to sleep soon.
“So, what plans do you have for tomorrow? You guys got a big party here, or maybe some friends coming to visit?”
Frank shook his head and said, “Nah, no party. This place is like a ghost town on Christmas Day. No, I’ll wake up early and catch the morning mass. My old church streams it now online. After that, I’ll have the run of the place. Some staff will be here, but almost none of the residents will. Their families come and pick them up. It’s nice. They know I love ham, so one of them will probably have a ham for me. You know, the one out of the can. With all the fixins.”
I sat back and shook my head, saying, “No. Not tomorrow.”
He wore a confused look and said, “Huh?”
“Sorry. What I meant was, I would like you to come to my family’s house tomorrow. We always have a huge dinner. My fiancé will be there, you can finally meet her. She knows all about you. Heck, my whole family knows you. It’d be great if they could finally put a face to the name and stories.”
He put his hands up and said, “No, I couldn’t. That’s your family, I’m not going to—”
“I insist. Please. Everyone wants to meet you, especially my fiancé. You’d be doing me a huge favor.”
Frank pressed his lips together, thinking for a moment.
Then, I added, “We always have a ham. A glazed ham. With pineapple. And tons of sides. You’ll be so stuffed. Come on, Frank. What do you say?”
Finally, he relented. I could see how excited he was, but he said, “Are you sure I’m not imposing? I don’t want to you to bring an unexpected guest.”
Grinning, I said, “I’m positive. They’re going to be so happy you came. I’ll swing by around 2, ok? No need to dress up. I wear jeans.”
When I arrived the next day just before 2pm with my fiancé, Kim, Frank was waiting in the lobby wearing a navy blue suit with a red tie. For a second, I thought he looked like a politician.
At my parents’ house, I introduced him around, and my mother actually hugged him. He wore a silly grin the entire afternoon and evening. He regaled us with stories of the war and tales from his many adventures with Beverly when they travelled around the world. He spoke of her with such a sweet fondness, it was almost heart breaking if it weren’t for the joyful stories he told.
On the way home, Kim insisted he sit in the front seat. At first, I figured she was just making it easier for him and his achy joints on a cold December night. But she ended up falling asleep on the back seat. I was glad though. I could see the contentment on his face as we passed under the street lights.
Frank folded his hands in his lap and looked down at one point. Quietly, he said, “Thank you for inviting me to be with your family tonight. It’s the happiest I’ve felt since I lost my Beverly. You have a wonderful family. They’re all such kind and lovely people. Thank you for that.”
I glanced over at him and said, “Hey Frank, they’re not my family. They are yours too if you’ll have us.”
He didn’t respond, but he did put his thumb and forefinger to his eyes as if to wipe away impending tears.
That was last Christmas. And Frank has spent every single holiday, birthday, and random day with me and my family since. I still read to all of my friends at St. Mary’s, but I have to admit that my favorite listener is Frank.