“All good things come to those who wait.” – popular ’50s axiom
I could hear her movements behind me, the snag of fabric as her hem caught on the desks, and the rattle of her book cart as she inched around the classroom. We first-graders sat, hands clasped in front of us as instructed, anticipation bubbling behind our compressed lips, awaiting the distribution of our first school primer.
I coveted books in all their forms: from the comic books Mom bought when I was laid up with the flu, to the shelves of Childcraft and World Book Encyclopedias at my grandmother’s house, to the leather-bound treasures in my dad’s study. I loved their hidden secrets and their dry, inky smell.
I sensed Sister Maria’s hawkish eyes drawing near but stared straight ahead in what I hoped would impress her as a show of extreme self-discipline, remembering how it felt when she had slapped me out of my chair for disobeying one of her first directives. I pressed my fingers together, not hard enough to expose my nervousness by turning my knuckles white.
She slapped a book onto each desk with a sharp clap followed by a pause as she scanned the room for signs of insubordination. I held my breath and “Bam!” there it was: a paper-bound catechism with everything I needed to know to earn my way into heaven.
My father was a learned man, a man of letters wrapped in a cocoon of books. They calmed him in a way we kids and his frazzled wife did not. I would watch him disappear into his world of knowledge, emerging hours later with the assured gait of the enlightened. Now I had a book that would help me catch up, a book I could carry home in my patent-leather book bag with the gold-colored clasp.
Fun with Dick and Jane followed: a secular version of worldly wisdom with pages splashed in pictures of apple-cheeked children under blue skies. I devoured my lessons, turning them over in my mind before I fell asleep at night, wondering which ones held the key to family harmony.
Dinner time was especially hairy, all of us worn from the day, slavering over a central pot of beef stew, my mother beatifically composed at one end of the table, my father simmering at the other end, and me across the narrow side from my two younger brothers warning them with eye daggers not to spill their milk or erupt in childish giggles.
Mom served Dad a generous bowl before scooping out a ladle each for me, for my brothers, and for herself. My bowl was usually the first one to sit empty, a testament to my lack of restraint. To my credit, I resisted the urge to lick it clean, using my brothers as a diversion, watching them idle through their stew, kicking each other under the table, their eyes dangerously aglow. After five minutes, I reached for the ladle, but looking sideways to read my father’s face, withdrew my hand.
A lightbulb had gone off! One of my school lessons came to me with such clarity that I could see the drawing of a little girl in a cute, blue dress, holding two apples and offering the slightly larger to her friend. The caption read: “Always give more than you take for yourself.”
I rested my hands on my lap, swallowed, and waited. When everyone had served themselves a second scoop of stew, I helped myself to more, being careful to fill the ladle slightly less than full. And while I ate, I watched to see who would take a third, biding my time.