Reading books over the phone with my grandson did us both a world of good

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

When my wife of 54 years died in 2015 I was left with a gaping hole of loneliness in my life. My adult sons and their families lived on the other side of the country. My only grandchild, Tristan, was eight years old at the time and lived in Toronto. Phone conversations between us generally consisted of question-and-answer sessions that left me feeling frustrated and none-the-wiser about how he spent his days or what made him tick. I felt we needed a mutual interest that could keep the channels of communication open in a way that was meaningful to us both. It occurred to me that we might 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 pretty skeptical. To my dad’s disappointment, I’d always been a reluctant reader (except for graphic novels), and I couldn’t imagine what interest Grandpa would have in reading the types of books that I enjoyed. However, Dad explained what a difficult and lonely time it was for Grandpa and asked me to at least give it a try. It was important to find books that we could both relate to and enjoy in some way, but we found that it wasn’t too easy when dealing with a 67-year age gap! Once Grandpa and I had agreed to try one of the first books my dad suggested – The One and Only Ivan – he ordered a copy for each of us. Since Grandpa is “old school,” we agreed that we would simply read back and forth to each other over the phone, without video; our aim was to read three or four nights a week for as long or short a time as tiredness or other commitments allowed.

Graham: Lining up the books we have read together on my bookshelf, I see how our reading choices have evolved over the past six years (and counting). Early on, our selections tended to be fairly traditional (Pax, The Butterfly Lion), books that perhaps evoked memories of my own childhood reading, but we gradually moved on to more eclectic choices and more challenging subject matter and themes (Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Animal Farm). Some books made more of an impression on one of us than the other. I particularly enjoyed Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, in part because I travelled to school on a steam train (sometimes even, illegally, on the footplate), but it was a little too innocent and old-fashioned for Tristan’s tastes. By contrast, Emma Donoghue’s The Lotterys Plus One, featuring a diverse family and their difficulties in assimilating a grandfather with dementia, was perhaps a little too close to home for me but quite relatable for Tristan! On the other hand, we were both captivated by the worlds of Kenneth Oppel’s Inkling and The Nest.

Tristan: Reading with Grandpa has helped to increase my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation and expression. Grandpa did some amateur acting when he was young so he tends to critique how I read things aloud. Of course, this is a two-way process: 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 are reading is particularly English).

Graham: In early 2020, COVID-19 brought lockdowns, upending everyone’s lives overnight. With the prospect of seeing each other in person again very far off, our reading together became even more important. Then the police killings of George Floyd and others, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, focused attention on racial injustice in unignorable ways. Tristan’s mother is Black and these issues hit close to home for a mixed-race teenager, but he wasn’t necessarily comfortable talking about them with his elderly white grandfather. I realized that reading might be an indirect way for us to raise these topics so his dad and I searched out books that might generate discussion. Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson were among the books we have since read together and discussed.

Tristan: Reading with Grandpa makes me take time out of my day to read and to schedule my other interests like basketball and PS4 around our time together. We read books that are more challenging and wide-ranging than I’d probably choose on my own and it’s great to talk about them with someone with so much more life experience than me. Best of all, reading together has given Grandpa a chance to find out what’s going on in my life while allowing me to keep a check on him, too.

Graham: This past August, Tristan and I were finally able to get together in person again in Vancouver. Reading took a backseat to outdoor activities like basketball, tennis and swimming, but we still squeezed in a few pages on most days of his visit. I realize that our literary bridge will be strained as Tristan gets further into his teenage years and other interests come to the fore, but for now we continue to choose new books together. If nothing else, I hope that I’ve been able to share my love of reading and my belief in the importance of words in this era of pervasive social media and “fake news.”

Perhaps the words that Tristan and I have enjoyed reading together the most are in The Lost Words, a richly illustrated book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris that catalogues words for plants and animals that have begun to disappear from children’s dictionaries through disuse. It contains wonderful poetry, augmented by stunning artwork, and it comes particularly alive for us when read together, sitting side by side.

Together, we have come to realize how much words matter in times like these when they are too often thrown around without much thought for their consequences.

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

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