• Betty Bastai

A 1950s Rocking Chair and Books

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

Elizabeth and I have been sharing a one-story house since August 2018. We are both vegetarian, have the same first name, were born in the same year and each of us had a significant other named Sam. I often find her holding a book in her hand when we bump into each other in the hallway, or immersing herself in attentive reading on the couch when I reluctantly walk into the kitchen to cook another time-consuming meal. Every time I wonder if her love for reading started when she was a child like me. The following interview was a great opportunity to talk about books, childhood and anything in between.

Elizabeth was born and raised in Massachusetts. Her favorite subject in school was English and she enjoyed making up stories and writing. She has fond memories of seeing her father absorbed in a good novel. She moved to New Mexico in 1992 where she earned a degree in psychology.

Betty Bastai: When and how did you develop a passion for reading books?

Elizabeth: I had the good fortune of being raised in a town with an excellent school system. There was a strong emphasis on academics. I learned to read relatively fast and it was so enjoyable. I remember back to when I was about five or six years old my father sitting in my rocking chair and reading to me before bed. I think this created a love for books at a young age when children are so impressionable. I remember regularly seeing my father sitting in his favorite chair in the living room with a book and I could tell that he really loved to read. One time my sister shared with me that when she was in elementary school she and her friend set a goal to read every book in the school library. Both of these experiences made an impression on me in such a way that my father and sister became my role models.

Betty: What happened to your rocking chair?

Elizabeth: Originally the rocking chair was in my sister’s bedroom and had a fabric covering with a design from the 1950s. After I was born we shared the bedroom. When I was about 14 years old I asked my grandmother to re-cover the chair with a more contemporary fabric. It was the 1970s so the fabric I chose had a loud colorful “flower power” pattern on it. After my father’s death, my brother was emptying the house and asked me what I wanted. I immediately thought of the rocking chair that it had been in my room for the first 17 years of my life. Since 2003 my cherished rocking chair has been sitting in my living room.

Betty: Why are books an important part of your life?

Elizabeth: It really widens my horizons to read about the world around me. I enjoy learning about people’s thoughts and experiences. To understand how others have dealt with adversity or difficult times in their lives is very interesting to me. Each and every book that I have read has helped open my mind a bit more.

Betty: What kind of books do you read?

Elizabeth: I like to read fiction mostly. I also like biographies and memoirs. Another very important role model, who has read many of

the world’s greatest authors, is my friend Sam. He introduced me to Russian novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina. I remember reflecting on these stories written so long ago and realizing how similar human beings are, no matter where they’re from or what the time period is. Characters like Anna and Levin, for example, from the 1800’s, were having the same turbulent issues in their relationships that many young people have today. That’s just fascinating!

Betty: You were a member of a local book club for a while. What did you like and/or dislike about it?

Elizabeth: This was my first and only book club I’d ever joined. I actually have a poor memory so I thought that getting together with other people and discussing what we’d all just read would help cement the story for me. I was in the club almost a year and we got together about every six weeks. It was very enjoyable and I really liked all but one or two of the choices. There was one book I just couldn’t get into and never finished it. It was educational for me to hear others’ opinions about a certain character or event in a chapter. I really enjoyed listening to what particular characters or events piqued their interest. I also had fun putting in my two cents worth!

I would say the one thing I disliked, which has nothing to do with the club or the members, was that I am a very slow reader and my habit has always been to read one book at a time. Even in college I had a tough time switching from studying one subject to the next each night. So, for the eleven months I was part of the club, I only read the book chosen by each host. I have a bookcase full of my own books I would like to read but could never get to them because I was immersed in the current book choice. So, that’s why I am not in a book club anymore, at least for a while.

Betty: Last December I began my Memory Loop action art project. It entails reading a little free library ‘s book, writing a letter to the next reader and leaving this letter inside the book. In order to present the letter in an attractive way I folded it up into an origami square letter fold. Then, I folded the instructions on how to do this fold into two heart shaped bookmarks. When I gave you this origami heart shaped bookmark made with hand made paper as a gift you were ecstatic and very happy. Why?

First of all, it was such a nice surprise to get the bookmark. I wasn’t expecting it. Also, I really love handmade items as gifts. It showed you cared enough to take some time to make it for me. I happen to be a collector of bookmarks. Around 2000 I worked at a little shop in the same building as an acupuncturist. She made a bookmark for me as a gift. It had a little positive saying written on it and it had all the colors of the rainbow drawn by hand. I thought that was such a nice, simple, creative, different type of present that I kind of got hooked on bookmarks. I started seeing them at libraries and would pick them up. I have one given to me by my friend Sam, which is made with Bhutanese stamps. My friend, Maria, gave me a little one that looks like a miniature Persian rug. The third one given to me by my book club friend who hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro has a little African design on it and two magnets that snap together on the page you want to come back to. Some of the bookmarks had become worn out so I threw them away. I hope to collect more when the pandemic is over.

Betty: How did you find out about the little free libraries and what do you think of them?

Elizabeth: I was walking my dog over to a local park and saw a structure in the middle of some desert willow trees. When I looked closer at it I saw books in it and a sign that said Little Free Library. As time has passed, more of them have popped up, which is nice to see. I thought that it was a really cool, creative invention. If you happen to see a book that looks interesting, you can just grab it, instead of going through the steps of trying to get it from the city library.

Betty: Do you use them?

Elizabeth: I have contributed my books to them, which hopefully others will enjoy, but I haven’t picked up any. I have so many books on my own bookshelf that I want to read, that right now I don’t need to scout for them at Little Free Libraries. I am curious, however, so I do peek inside to see what titles are in there.

Betty: You have been working in Albuquerque elementary schools for over ten years as support staff. Since I moved to New Mexico more than a year ago I heard a lot of complaints about the state’s public school system. What do you think of it? Do you want to share anything about literacy in New Mexico?

Elizabeth: First of all, I would like to praise all the teachers I have worked with over the years. I think Albuquerque’s school district is so large, and a majority of the families are so poor, with many issues of their own, that it is quite a challenge for our teachers to help their students learn. But our teachers and staff soldier on! I admire them so much.

New Mexico struggles with its literacy rate because many of the students are English language learners and a lot of parents are struggling themselves with addiction, unemployment, poverty, or having dropped out of school. However, at our school we have a program called Albuquerque Reads. Volunteers come in every day and take students from kindergarten and now, this year, first grade, and tutor them. This is helping so many children get a kick-start in reading proficiency and I believe it is very worthwhile. One of the things I would like to do when I am retired is tutor someone in reading. I think that would be very rewarding for me as well as the other person.

Betty: Electronic books have become more available since they first appeared. Do you have an Ebook reader?

Elizabeth: I don’t have an e-book reader and I don’t see myself ever buying one. I absolutely love to hold a book, magazine, or newspaper in my hands. I stare at the computer enough as it is so when I shut it down and pick up my book, I feel happy and content. I have two friends who are a little older and close to my generation. I assumed they would never want to use an e-book reader. I was wrong. They are converts and all their reading is on a Kindle. They have tried to convince me to buy one but I refuse. However, my iPad has an e-book application called Books. One time I downloaded a couple of novels and read them but I didn’t like the experience because I was forced to spend more time in front of a computer screen. My friend had some games on his Kindle that I played and that was kind of fun.

Betty: How is the coronavirus outbreak affecting your love for reading books?

Elizabeth: This virus is horrible but it has allowed me time to do more reading, which I like. I am just finishing a book now. It’s called The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy. He recounts the last few years spent trying to reconcile with his difficult (to say the least) father. His novels that I have read are based on the horrible family conditions he grew up in. Once I am through with it I will happily pick the next one from my collection.

Betty: Did you find similarities between Pat Conroy’s memoir and the rise of domestic violence incidents due to the pandemic?

Elizabeth: Well, I hadn’t really put the two together when I was reading it. From what I have heard, domestic violence victims are now stuck in the house with their abusers and have been cut off from the necessary services that might help them. I guess one could compare Pat’s early life being a “prisoner” in his own home with his mom and siblings and a violent father, to the victims of today who also can’t escape their situation. Pat and his brothers and sisters were all dependent upon their mother to make the decision to leave the marriage, which she did not do until all the children were grown and out of the house.

I greatly appreciate the time that I have spent collaborating with Elizabeth on this interview. I did not have a father who sat down on a rocking chair to read me a book at bedtime when I was a child, but, somehow, I developed a fascination for the printed word at an early age like she did.

If you cherish a particular object that has a relevant place in your reading experience and

would you like to share your thoughts log in and leave a comment here.

Thank You and Happy Reading!

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