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A Banquet Spoken, A Banquet Written

I cut my teeth on the rhythm of spoken words. Born in the generation of children seen and not heard, I honed eavesdropping to an art form. I sat on the porch, listening to my mother and grandfather discuss news and politics of the day. Whenever Popa was around, Mom’s voice reflected his soft Georgian accent—his throaty, lilting inflection. In our family’s early days, we also spent many a Sunday antiquing on Tidewater’s back roads. I slept in the back of my parents’ VW station wagon, my face cool against a Snoopy pillow, my other ear perked to their chatter.

My mother the English professor read to me aloud. Not just bedtime stories, but poetry, essays, newspaper articles, even passages from novels she was teaching to college freshmen. The thing about hearing words is that it allows us to taste vocabulary far above our decoding abilities. I’ve taken that page from her playbook, not only with my own students but with our daughters. When we lost Maya Angelou in 2014, my first reaction was to sit them both—13 and 16 at the time—on the living room couch and recite “Phenomenal Woman” to these two burgeoning phenomenal women.

I cut my teeth on sheets filled with words. They have always been my savage feast.

Savage Feast is also the title of a new memoir by Belarusian immigrant Boris Fishman. He was interviewed on NPR recently, and my first thought upon listening to his explanation of Holocaust survivor grandparents and their collection of recipes that permeated his childhood was that I need to buy that book for a friend I haven’t seen in a while. She’s a Russian Studies major, a foodie, intellectually curious to a fault. Yes, Boris Fishman’s words are perfect for her.

I often give books as gifts. On the one hand, that might seem like an unimaginative offering, especially when it becomes something you can count on most birthdays and Christmases. It doesn’t appear to require much work. A quick click on Amazon Prime or an afternoon at Barnes and Noble (or as I call it, the Happiest Place on Earth) and… BAM…shopping done. I’m fully aware that not everyone reads, or that many who do would rather hold a Kindle or scroll on their phones than attack a stack cardboard bound pages on their bedside tables.

“Sally, can’t you come up with a different idea?” you ask yourself while unwrapping this year’s latest literary treasure.

My answer? Every book IS a different idea, and when I choose one, either for my husband, one of our daughters, a friend, a student, I understand that each recipient, and their needs, are unique as well—deliciously so.

We lost our 17-year-old cat and my 90-year-old grandmother in the same six weeks. Our daughters’ ages at the time—seven and four—were in that period where death, no matter how we encounter it, carries similar life instruction. Death is real. It’s not a cartoon character erased from a frame and reborn in the next episode. Death is final, a permanent goodbye. To the early elementary schooler, that realization is terrifying, and Aimee, the oldest, was struggling. I asked my mother for advice, and she, as she always does, recommended a book—The Fall of Freddy the Leaf. It’s an elegantly written, accessible explanation of death, remembrance, and rejuvenation. We sat both girls down and read them the book—aloud. When we finished, we asked Aimee what she thought the words had to teach us about what happens when we die. She nodded with tear wet eyes, ready to speak her newfound wisdom. Then her four-year-old sister broke in.

“Well, if we’re like Freddy the Leaf, we’ll end up in Leaf Heaven—the trashcan,” she said flatly before hopping up and asking for a juice box. Like I said, the First Born was struggling a bit more.

Our Second Born has her own ongoing love affair with the rhythm of words. No one remembers and recites song lyrics like she does. For every situation, every bit of high school drama and chill, she has a song to play through the car’s Bluetooth. These words and melodies feed her like the final paragraph of Gatsby or the first paragraph of Their Eyes were Watching God do me. Every time I read. Every time she sings. In the end, we all turn to language, often someone else’s, to nourish us, provide us answers at best and comfort at the least.

So when you receive a book from me, know I’m inviting you to share in the feast.

And that my love for you is savage.

Sally Huggins Toner