Read Chez Cordelia Online

Authors: Kitty Burns Florey

Chez Cordelia

Chez Cordelia

A Novel

Kitty Burns Florey

“Preparation is everything.”

Julia Child

For Ken and Kate

Chapter One

The Chamber of Horrors

I make lists. Not just shopping lists and lists of “Things I Must Do Next Tuesday,” but lists designed to organize my life. I make a list when I need to get things straight—what's straighter than a list? Nice and neat, with all the nonessentials pruned away. I would like my life to be like that.

I'm writing this account of my life out of necessity, because I need to make sense out of it and lists aren't enough. I doubt that this will be enough, either. I'm a talker, not a writer. I don't put much faith in the adequacy of the written word, and this is a labor not of love or of faith but of pure anguish. All my life, I've been at war with words put down on paper, and now I'm waging the war in earnest. I have to do it because my honor is at stake. In that respect, it's like any war, and I suppose it will be just as futile, producing—after all the napalm burns and bombed-out cities—only a temporary peace, or an illusion of peace. But I push on, each page its own lonely battlefield.

I suppose writing is painful for me because reading is. From the time I learned to read, I disliked it. I learned late. Instinctively, I put it off as long as possible. I didn't really read with fluency until third grade, and I'll tell you one reason why: I had a mother, a father, two older sisters, and a brother to read to me, and they read so well, with such drama, assuming with such magical ease and accuracy the roles of Flopsy Bunny and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Freddy the Pig, that the printed words, the mere letters marching in dull rows across the page, were hopelessly insipid by comparison.

But that's not all of it. I resisted reading because books were the family trade, the family obsession. My parents and my siblings read and write as gracefully and as necessarily as they breathe. With me the genes for that sort of thing must have been used up or gone stale or refused to cooperate. From the time I was a child, I was the maverick, the little oddball who hated books.

Books, for me, were never the key to the pleasures of plot and character and language that my anxious mother, during our unproductive talks, claimed them to be (her face subtly horrified at her mutant daughter, the afterthought, supposed to be the joy and comfort of her middle age, apparently no relation—at least spiritually—to her or my father or their other three children, who at tender ages had been reading Dickens and the comedies of Shakespeare). Books were simply a vehicle for getting my family to pay some attention to me, and if that implies that they stopped paying attention to me when I learned to read for myself, it's supposed to. That's just what happened, as I sensed it would, though my parents, who in their own way are conscientious about their children, would wince at my thinking so.

But the truth was that they didn't find me and my oddity very interesting. In fact, they seldom acknowledged its existence. My happy illiteracy was glossed over for years as if it wasn't there, like some minor flaw I'd probably grow out of with a little help—a lisp, or baby fat. My father always gave me books for Christmas and birthdays, beautifully inscribed in his distinctive handwriting (of course, on top of everything else, the whole family has distinctive handwriting): “To Cordelia, from her loving father,” and the date. I still have all of them (the illustrated
David Copperfield
he gave me for my fourth birthday makes an excellent place for pressing wild-flowers), but I've still never read them. Whenever I open one and read “Your loving father,” I think: if he really loved me he would never have given me these books.

It wasn't just my parents. My brother and sisters were in on it, too—the conspiracy to entice me into the world of books, and the polite refusal to acknowledge my lack of enthusiasm. Books were waved before me like doughnuts before a dieter, but I can't remember being very tempted. I think back to Juliet squealing her affected squeal, when I was five and she ten, over
The Mill on the Floss
. “You are going to love this in a couple of years, Cordelia. Here—” She tossed it in my lap. “Give it a try,” she said, and gave me a sisterly hug before she floated off somewhere to begin on something else. Blast her, she knew I could no more give
The Mill on the Floss
a try than I could fly up the chimney, but that was her way of teaching me to read. “That's how
I
learned,” she used to say to me in the earnest voice she used when she wanted to cover up bragging. “Just by doing it, Cordelia. Start at the beginning and sound out the words, don't worry if you don't know what they mean, just keep going on …”

Her voice kept going on. I was her project, and if I could have flown up the chimney I would have. What an escape, what an event it would have been. “Good-bye forever, Jule,” I would have said, and swooshed up the chimney like a skinny little Santa Claus. But no. I used to sit there with those heavy books on my lap, feeling deadened by them, their weight, the immense bulk of the millions and millions of ABC's in them. Once I told Juliet I didn't much want to learn to read, and she giggled as at a naughty joke. “Of course you do,” she said, and returned to her book.

All of them—they couldn't wait until I got tangled in the web of the printed word. They just couldn't understand what was taking me so long.

“Why do you resist it?” my mother asked me finally when, at six, I brought home my U in first-grade reading. (The U was for Unsatisfactory, which was severely understating the case, but there was no lower grade than U in my positive-thinking, sunny-side-up school.) My mother's face was almost unlined—she was in her late thirties then—except for two furrows between her eyebrows, the result of all those years of frowning over books. When she looked at my report card the lines deepened, and I could see the hint of more coming, lines that would get sharper the more I brought home lousy report cards. I felt bloated with guilt, my stomach began to hurt, I had to go to the bathroom.

“Why don't you like reading?” she asked me in despair. “With all this around you?” She gestured widely, and indeed the walls (though we were in the kitchen) were lined with books, and through the door into the living room we could see Juliet slumped in a chair, chewing her hair and getting her print fix. On the table before us lay the book my mother had been reading when I got home from school, face down to mark the place.

She waited patiently for an answer. “It's too hard,” I said, not knowing what else to say. I looked down at the book on the table. If pressed, I would have deciphered the title as
Silly Wimps
. That couldn't have been it, of course, but that's how bad a reader I was—or maybe I was projecting.

My mother sighed. At least I hadn't confessed the total antipathy she feared. “It'll get easier,” she said, squeezing my hand. “You'll work at it, won't you, Cordelia?” She gazed intently at me, as if my face were a book.

I nodded with enthusiasm, and was rewarded for my fib by seeing the lines smooth out a bit. She gave me a little bowl of salty black olives and a glass of milk. Before I'd finished my first olive she was deep in her book again.

I remember eating olives and feeling lonely, feeling like an alien invader of another planet. The lie I'd just told bothered me—I knew perfectly well I wasn't going to
work at
reading. I saw that little evasion as the first in a long string of them; already, at age six, I'd learned how to sneak and compromise in order to get along in hostile territory. My mother was far away in
Silly Wimps
, though she raised her head once or twice to smile dimly at me. Juliet chewed her long hair and read and read like an enchanted princess. The others weren't home from school yet. My father was up in his third-floor study. It was raining outside. I'd gotten a U on my report card. Dinner was hours away. I finished all the olives. I began to bang my feet against the rungs of my chair and cry.

It ended with Juliet reading to me. “She's upset about her report card,” my mother said softly to Juliet, and I yelled, “I am not! I don't care!” I banged my feet harder. My sister and my mother exchanged a look: “That just shows how much she
does
care.” I kept muttering “I don't care” until Juliet offered to read to me. “This always calms her down,” she said to my mother in the prissy, grown-up voice she had adopted when she began getting poems published on the children's page of the newspaper.

We curled up on the sofa together with one of the Freddy the Pig books I was addicted to. My mother beamed at us. Such traditional family scenes always abstractly touched her; Juliet even had one arm around my shoulder. I sniffled a few more times and burrowed closer to her. Juliet was the best reader of all, better even than my father. She had a real dramatic gift, which was what probably made her, later, a good fashion model; and when she put on her brave, squeaky voice for Freddy and her high, snooty one for awful Mrs. Under-dunk, I giggled with delight, looking resolutely at the pictures and not at the words.

This was what I wanted—someone to snuggle with, someone to pay attention to me, the sound of a human voice. The stories were only a welcome adjunct to these other pleasures. It was the solitariness of reading that turned me off, the deadly grown-up-ness of it. I saw learning to read, and I still believe rightly, as the end of childhood.

And I suppose, put simply, I preferred people to books—not such a bizarre preference, it seems to me. But in my family it was. In my family the eccentricities of characters in novels were lovable, and the eccentricities of the youngest child were unacceptable. It's
that
that I thought I could never forgive them for.

But of course I did, finally, learn to read. The full force of family pressure came down on me, abetted by my teachers, when I was in the third grade and still reading at first-grade level, still getting U's. When I read aloud in the classroom there were sighs of impatience and occasional groans, and I'd see the cold marble face of Sister Victoria Marie close up in silent prayer while I broke out in a sweat over words like
surprise
and
neighbor
. I was a whiz at arithmetic, at the head of the class without effort, and my parents had hopes (slightly appalled ones, considering the family talents) that I would distinguish myself in numbers if not in letters. My promise faded with adolescence when I discovered the stigma attached to girls who got A's in math, but at eight I was a natural, and for that reason I was not held back a grade and was, in fact, considered bright enough—although I had heard my parents more than once discuss the possibility that I was one of those idiots savants who babble and dribble through life until presented with a column of figures, which they promptly add up in their heads, square, and translate into metric feet.

“If she can multiply, she can read,” they said to each other—illogically and without much hope but, it turned out, truly. My parents got after the school, and the school got the Reading Specialist after me.

Her name was Mrs. Meek (so much for the power of words), and she bullied me into it. She had a will of iron, I had as yet no discernible will at all, and by the time I was nine I was spewing out whole chapters of the red-covered First Reader. What a dull book it was, too—what a reward for all my pains:
Neighborhood Friends
, starring Ted and Nancy and their dog Spot. After I finished it and went sloppily through its accompanying workbook, I pushed on to the Second Reader,
This Wide World
, in which Ted and Nancy take up basketball, travel to the big city, build a playhouse, and get a new puppy (Skippy, an Airedale), never letting on what happened to faithful Spot or mourning the old boy for a minute.

But in the end, no matter how glibly I rattled off the adventures of Ted and Nancy and their doomed mutts, I knew my parents were disappointed in me. The fact that I'd had to work so hard at reading, and, worse yet, didn't enjoy it at all, was a grievous blow to them. There was Juliet, in the eighth grade, winning the Junior Scholastic short story contest for the third year in a row and regularly contributing to the children's page. And Miranda, in tenth grade, editor of the school paper, honor student, spelling bee veteran. And Horatio, in his senior year, a Merit scholar finishing up his first novel and ready to head for Harvard. And me … an unpromising third-grader who read simpleminded texts not for pleasure but because I was browbeaten into it by Mrs. Meek. I never told them I was bribed into it, too, with candy. A worse ignominy than not to read at all: to read for Hershey bars.

I look back on my sessions with Mrs. Meek—that calculated breaking of my will, the first hard assault on my spirit—as the point at which I said to myself, “No more. Never again,” and resolved to go my own way. It's the search for that way that I've had to build my life on, and it's because of my parents and my siblings and Mrs. Meek that I sit, today, at this particular table, with this particular pencil in my hand and this particular view (trees, banks of flowers, quiet blue lake) before me.

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