We were talking about how my Greek immigrant grandfather must have felt, living his whole life unable to read or write. In spite of the “disability,” he became a popular restaurant owner and collector of properties. At one point, he owned an entire block of prime real estate next to Florida’s Capitol building – and he paid cash for it.
Literacy was on my mind, as my husband and I had just watched the movie, “The Reader,” with Kate Winslet. In discussing it (trying not to be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the 2008 film), my two sisters and I related it to our grandfather’s experience. We marveled at what he accomplished without the advantage of literacy.
Later, I tried to imagine what my life would have been like without the written word. I couldn’t.
For as long as I can remember, I have been borderline obsessed with reading. From studying the cereal box as a child, to craning my neck so I could make out messages on billboards. Words are like a combination lock for me, when I hear it click open, I discover…What?
Knowledge, information – story!
I mean, how does one live their life surrounded by the alphabet artfully arranged – mail piled on counters, magazines at the grocery checkout, road signs – and not respond with the desire to know what it means?
My own love affair with words started when I etched my name in pencil on tattered paper (with a backwards “J”) and saw my mother’s expression of approval. She punctuated the moment for me when she taped it to her bedroom mirror.
I pondered the idea of illiteracy more recently when I was invited to be part of the “Reader’s Theatre” dinner performance to benefit the Literacy Volunteers of Leon County. My acceptance meant that I would have to dust off my acting skills. My past dramatic credits include playing an elf in a Tallahassee Little Theater production, roadside dramas at a friend’s house on Lee Avenue (picture a lemonade stand, only with costumed clowns and capers) and a monologue playing Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit for the talent part of “Miss Tallahassee” beauty pageant. Oh, to be 17 again…
But for the love of bringing literacy to those who are without a relationship to the written word, I said yes. Tomorrow night, I’ll be playing “Lady Beatrice,” initially, then returning in another scene as an outlaw and a rogue. Mercifully, we are not expected to memorize our parts. Just read them with gusto and try not to be distracted when one of our fellow actors decides to improvise. Which, of course, provides most of the comical moments in the play.
I also celebrated literacy with today’s publication of my author interview in the Shelf Awareness e-newsletter about recently published books and the book industry. It’s called Book Brahmin.
Next, I’ll be revising an essay about my Greek grandfather and seeking to better understand that part of his story: illiteracy. After all, without his sacrifices, I may never have had the opportunity to read – much less become a storyteller.
My life’s purpose because of him.