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Taylor Brorby

My Grandmother’s Lesson

While making cookies with my grandmother when I was little, I once asked her why she read so much. She said that she read to know that she wasn’t alone. I wondered what she meant—alone from what? Why was my grandma lonely? She seemed perfectly happy to me.

Growing up I did not care for books. I never read James and the Giant Peach, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Little Women. I made it through grade school perusing the Goosebumps series and The Boxcar Children only to mild amusement and thought that books were something better left to adults. Fields, and valleys, and streams held my attention. And, I thought, who wanted to sit inside by themselves and read dusty books anyway? So I took to nature.

Behind my childhood home was a dike that led to a field. Running through the trees of my backyard I looked forward to the rush of running down one side of the dike and up the other only to be greeted by waving yellow stalks of wheat. Through the field I ran, tripping over dirt clumps, and scaring resting deer into full-on flight. With my fishing pole and tackle box in tow, I found my way to my stream.

The stream gently flowed for miles. On its surface I would notice unfortunate grasshoppers that had missed their target and managed to land in their final resting place, only before a willing northern pike would viciously strike the otherwise peaceful surface of the water.

My stream brought me into silence and solitude in an otherwise busy world. Making it to my stream I no longer was tied to the world of friends and of grownups; I was free to roam wherever I pleased. I was not fenced in to others’ expectations or to their ideas of how little boys should behave. Often I would bring my sketchbook to draw frogs, flowers, and the birds above. I sat in nature to rid myself of the busyness of others and to get down to the business of the birds and the bees.

Rousing myself from my afternoon daze I would get to the task at hand of catching a fish. Stretching my line, I would carefully select a lure with some “flash” hoping to entice a piscatorial friend into biting. Undoubtedly I’d choose a popper. The design was attractive to me—sleek, in the shape of a minnow. I prayed to the God above that the sparkle of tinsel at the end of my lure would give me that sensation I so dearly loved: the tug of a fish on the other end of the line.

I tied my blood-knot, said a silent prayer, and sent my lure reeling through the breeze, savoring the plop as it broke the tension of the water’s surface. A small wake would follow the lure as I would start to reel and then, when the line was tight, I would pull to create a popping noise—what I thought must sound like a frog kicking the surface of the water to the fish below. I would wait, knowing a fish had to be down there, lurking in some hole and wanting an easy meal. What I thought should be easy would eventually turn into a battle of will against the fish. I would devolve into childhood curses of “Pft,” “Humph,” and “C’mon!” Eventually the fish’s will won out and I would move to a neighboring pool.

On my return walk home the world of fantasy would ease into the world of obligation and chore. I would have to do schoolwork, help with dishes and sort the laundry. There was no clear line where my two worlds began and ended, but a sense of heaviness seemed to build with each step I took from the wheat field getting closer to my house.


We moved from my childhood home when I was 15 to a much larger city—70,000 was an unfathomable number of bodies to a child who was used to his town of 600. Nature was left to childhood desires, and the world of books and ideas soon were my passion. In school I excelled: I recited poems, was in plays, fell in love with English and History, and was popular in the student body. Nature would come into my life every so often—on trips out West, swimming in the muddy Missouri with friends, and taking the now rare fishing trips that reminded me of childhood.

I ran through fields to escape from the world of adults, and as I grew up, I turned pages, and began to read. I went back to my childhood reading lists, finally understanding the rich worlds of Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis. I read because I wanted to know what other people were thinking and to enter their worlds. In high school I had a series of remarkable English teachers. One, during our reading of Julius Caesar, told us over and over that she wanted to name her son Metellus Cimber, the man who gave the signal to kill Caesar. This teacher just liked the sound of the name. Another, during my junior year, was selected as the Teacher of the Nation, and in my senior year we rewrote scenes from Hamlet as if we were on MTV’s show The Real World. These women simply did not teach, they piled book upon book on the shelf of my mind until it finally made sense—the natural world I so readily ran to as a child was now the world I turned to in books.

College came, and my grandmother died, leaving a hole that has not been filled. The woman who taught me to make cookies, play cards, garden, and was my rival in Jeopardy! was no longer part of my life.

My first college English course involved rereading many titles I loathed in high school. But it was in my rereading of The Lord of the Flies that I finally learned why books could move mountains. In my edition of the book, on page 42, William Golding describes the fire that engulfs much of the island as a squirrel jumping from branch to branch, delicately setting each tree ablaze. I missed—or didn’t remember—reading that section in high school. When I stated to my Oxford-educated professor that something in the book must have changed, he simply said that maybe that something was me.

One afternoon, while walking through the fields and marshes surrounding the college, my professor told me about one of his favorite letters C.S. Lewis had written in response to a person inquiring why we read. The professor, towing along his British sheep dog, drew himself up, paused, and asked, “Taylor, do you know what his response was?” With tears in my eyes, I looked at my friend and professor and said, “To know we are not alone.”


Taylor Brorby is the current Writer-in-Residence at Holden Village. He is an essayist, environmentalist, and LGBT rights activist.