Reading Harry (Part 1)

Fair warning: I am going to gush about Harry Potter. And I’m going to have to do it in installments. So bear with me only if you are a true fan. Since that final trip to the movies with my kids a few weeks ago to watch Harry and Voldemort fulfill their destinies, I have put off writing about it, mainly in hopes of gaining some perspective and reining in my drama queen. But I fear that my devotion to Harry will never really fade, and whenever I talk about him, it will always be with an exaggerated reverence that no doubt seems downright silly to the faithless. The fact is Harry is special to me because of the priceless bond he has forged and sustained between my kids and me throughout 10 years of their childhood. While they have gone through many phases of fascination with one literary character or another – Peter Pan, Merlin, Tom Sawyer –the 10-year run of Harry and his world is unmatched by any other, and has been the stuff of parenting bliss.

There were so many memorable moments; it all started with the paper maché owls that came home from kindergarten with Lucas and Fiona in the form of little balls of masking tape with owl faces drawn on and tiny envelopes stuck to them. Lucas would frenetically produce several of them each day after school, saying that he had to get the mail out to his classmates. He had a friend called Sam, who was telling him all about the owls, wands, Hogwarts and muggles (non-magical folk); his enthusiasm to learn more was just brimming over. Vaguely aware of the growing phenomenon of Harry Potter (back in 2001), I didn’t consider exploring the books because of my twins’ age at the time. However, I soon met Sam’s mother and she told me that Sam was an early reader; she had been reading HP aloud with him and discovered it to be a source of fascination and real stimulation for Sam. Because the boys had become such good friends – and were “writing” an HP play for their classmates – I decided that we would give Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a try. That was the beginning of a journey through 7 books, 8 movies, learning to read, life in three countries, and the passage from childhood to teenagers. So, like Harry’s own passage into adulthood, his story will be forever intertwined with my own kids’.

There is a photograph of me reading that first book to Lucas and Fiona out in our backyard in Richmond, Va., not long before we packed up our life and moved it across the Atlantic to Spain. The kids are both staring into the middle distance with such rapt expressions – photographic evidence of having moved beyond picture books into the realm of full-blown imagination. The Harry Potter books particularly lend to being read aloud. Even after the kids started reading them on their own, we still read every new release aloud together. And they would always beg for “just one more chapter, please, Mommy!” And every time we got our hands on the next one, our mutual relishing of that first page together on the sofa – me cross-legged in the middle with one kid snuggled on either side – there was something nearly sinful about it, so utterly unimportant was everything else.

The orality of J.K. Rowling’s writing took the kids’ powers of concentration to new levels and set the stage for many of the long road trips to come in Europe, listening to one book on tape after another in the car  –  Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak and many others – I think they love road trips for that very reason. On one such trip, Harry accompanied us all the way to France. Although we have always made a point of reading (and listening) to books in their original language, the only audiobook I could find in Seville was HP1 in Spanish. Since my husband had largely been left out of our little party of three when it came to Harry, it was a good way to let him in on it and try Harry out in Spanish for the long drive north. I believe we spent as much time in rapt listening mode in the car as we did exploring the castles ruins, camping or touring the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. We have fantastic photos and memories of that trip, but the narrator’s voice reading Harry in Spanish is the soundtrack that comes to mind every time I revisit them.

Then there was the invisibility cloak, conveniently left in the street for my husband to find and bring home to Lucas one day. It was a slippery, slinky black and silver thing that I think Lucas truly believed gave him powers of invisibility and certainly became the prize object in the kids’ costume trunk. Moving to Spain did nothing to tame the kids’ theatrical inclinations – they both lived in costume – so they attended their first HP bookstore event in Seville decked out in full Hogwarts regalia. Lucas with his invisibility cloak and round, broken glasses, and Fiona, of course, as Hermione in a long, natty brown wig (formerly belonging to one of the three Reyes Magos), with a broom and starry wand. Winding our way through the labyrinth of Seville, we ran into friends on the way (as one always does in the streets of Seville). A battle ensued between Lucas and a rival wizard from the other party, with threats in Sevillano Spanish mixed with spells in Latin. Wands drawn, the duel continued through the narrow streets, around corners and on into the bookshop. (I believe they both lost, flayed as they were on the floor as I recall. Hermione took a potion from her bag and revived Harry, thank goodness). As the flagship event in Seville at that time, the local media were there and we made the papers.

Sadly, our years in Spain came to an end sooner than planned. For personal reasons, we made the decision to move to Argentina at the end of 2005. Looking back to our first summer in Andalucía, and how we sweltered in a tiny apartment, searching for a place to live, waiting for the ship carrying our container to arrive and double-guessing the sanity of what we were doing, I also remembered the intensity of our immersion in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban that summer. Those endless hours of reading with Fiona and Lucas were the one constant in a family life that had been completely turned on its head when we left the US and moved to Spain; Harry became our anchor then. And so, less than 3 years later when the same thing was about to happen all over again – this time en route to Argentina – he was right there with us as we mentally prepared for our next adventure in international moving. First, there was the reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that last summer in Seville.  I have placid memories of our month housesitting for friends whose house came with a pool (serious luxury in the frying pan of Andalucia) and happy bike rides along the river and through the city, empty of noisy Sevillanos in August. Absolutely blissful end of summer. However, sadness befell us as well. One afternoon my husband came down from his nap to find his entire family in tears on the couch. In complete shock he asked what was wrong, fearing that someone had died. We all blubbered in unison, “Dumbledore is dead!” Obviously, the kids were mourning the death of a beloved character, but in my case, it was much more about the killing off of the last adult figure in Harry’s life and what that represented in the larger scheme of childhood waning. It had to be done. Even though my children were only 8 then, the upcoming move marked a turning point towards the later stages of childhood, in which I knew my presence would become increasingly less important. J.K. Rowling manages to consistently and poignantly capture the different stages of separation between children and the adults in their lives as Harry and his friends grow up. This surely comes from a writer who is keenly aware of her own role as a parent; for that she has my respect.

To be continued….