Summertime Reading : a Family Memoir

Summertime is a time of relaxed schedules, unusual outings and for many just plain ‘extra time’. For my family it has always been connected somehow to extra summer reading. In fact, the phrase “Social Reading” is one that really does apply when my three sibs and I get together. Although we live thousands of miles apart, when we get together, you can often find us sprawled around any and all available seating, quietly reading away. There will be occasional “oh you have to hear this part!” and “Can I borrow that after you?”, and when books are handed over to others we are sure to be clear—this book can be given away to anyone, or it is lent on terms of returning to ‘the family’. Not that the book is valuable—usually it’s a battered paperback—but we know others in the family would like it. Thus we continue to build a family vocabulary of particular authors and titles.

For twenty years we have had family gatherings of my sibs and our 8 children, together with the grandparents, and most often we would gather in some small mountain town. It was a tradition that we would all collect up our extraneous books and bring them along for a grand family swap. One time we were playing Dictionary (a homemade sort of Balderdash) which absolutely requires a dictionary. None of us brought one that summer, so I made a trek to the Alpine County Library in Markleeville, where I presented my ALA card and cajoled the librarian into lending me a dictionary, just for the week. Yes, I did return it, but I still have my Alpine County Library card as a souvenir.

Some memorable family reads include Robert Crais for Los Angeles detective thrills, Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy for thought provoking futuristic thrills and Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series for backcountry wilderness thrills. Robin Hobbs’ Assassin, Mad Ships and Fool series kept my two sisters and I enthralled during one road trip through the Rockies; we found it very hard when two of us had finished a volume and the other was still in the middle of it—not being able to go into particulars while in the throes of Oh My Goodness Can You Believe He Did THAT?!? was particularly frustrating. There were occasional whispered Q and A’s between two of us while the third sister kept fingers in ears singing La La La. Then when one of us was ready for the next volume but another sister was still finishing it, no one was allowed to talk to that sister until she’d finished her book. “No talking to Sarah til she finishes Mad Ship!” With that series, there were 9 volumes to keep us all busy all the way to Banff and back.

Canada Road Trip 204

One other aspect of family summer reading is tied up with our annual summer backpacking trips. My dad, George Sweeney, completed the Pacific Crest Trail in pieces over twelve years in the 70s and 80s, and was nice enough to bring his family along for much of it. When backpacking, weight is an issue, so there was often much conversation about what books everyone would bring. If we brought titles that others were also interested in, then we could swap our titles and everyone’s library would be extended. I fell short one summer up in the Oregon Cascades, when the rain kept us to our tents more than usual, and my Dad finished all the books we had brought. The last title available was a Barbara Cartland I had slipped into my pack for old time’s sake. Yes, George Sweeney read even that—I think it gave him a few giggle fits. Now that Dad has passed away one of our favorite photos of him is on a pack stop, sitting with feet outstretched, leaning against his pack, reading a paperback while looking out from the top of Nevada Falls over the stunning Yosemite Valley. I took that photo, and remember the day, the trip (with my brother Phil) and even the book he is reading: The Beast by Peter Benchley. A perfect backpacking book.

But one of my fondest book/ backpacking memories was reading War and Peace up in the Washington Cascades. I was riveted. Somehow the back country setting allowed for optimal absorption of the most foreign places, and I was transported to St. Petersburg salons and gory battlefields with equal ease. [Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t yet read War and Peace, skip the rest of this paragraph!] When I commented that I wanted Pierre and Natalie to end up together but it didn’t look likely, my Dad calmly said, “No, they don’t end up together; they marry other people”. I was so mad at my Dad for spoiling my book, and all the way through, when it started looking as if Pierre and Natalie WOULD end up together, I knew they wouldn’t, since my Dad had let that cat out of the bag. Well, as you know, they DO end up together, and my Dad was having a lot of fun with my confusion all through that trip. George Sweeney’s famous dry humor pulled that one off completely. He’s probably STILL laughing about that one, somewhere.

My heartfelt thanks go to my parents, George and Mary Sweeney, for making books and reading an integral part of our lives, and to my siblings Kathryn, Phil and Sarah for joining me on the journey. The shared memories are many and the shared books are a strong part of the tapestry that weaves our lives together. I hope you are all building similar memories reading with your families this summer.

George reading backpacking

5 thoughts on “Summertime Reading : a Family Memoir

  1. Shannon–it was so fun to read this beautiful and impressive tribute to your family.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Shannon, I laughed out loud about the story of your dad telling you “the ending.” While my brothers and I all love to read, it’s really music that brings us together this way. I’ve enjoyed this connection we’ve had with the aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, cousins, and our own children. There’s always something to talk about when you’re not involved in the shared activities also. Great post!

    • Thanks, Faith and Jo. People think ‘reading’ is a solitary, isolating occupation. Not so! It’s a branch of ‘storytelling’, and there’s nothing more social.

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