When I was in sixth grade, my class read The Hobbit. I asked my Aunt Bet if I could borrow her beautiful hardcover copy of the book. She was the most generous person I know, so of course she said yes without hesitation.
Let me tell you a little about Aunt Betsy, my mom’s slightly older sister. You can call her Aunt Betsy or Aunt Bet. Everyone did: her dozens of nephews and nieces as well as their friends and friends of friends and anyone who had the luck to meet her. She was everybody’s favorite Aunt. She was generous, and kind, and welcoming, and smart, and interesting, and adventurous. She was my best friend and hero and mentor and teacher and second mom.
Aunt Bet was in a car accident at the age of sixteen, broke her spine, and was paralyzed from the waist down. Some outdated medical decisions were made at the time which made her condition more complicated. She could get around in her wheelchair, but spent most of her life in a special bed that kept pressure off her skin. This meant she spent most of her time in her room and when you wanted to hang out with Aunt Bet you usually hung out in her room. This was fine, because her room was the GREATEST PLACE IN THE WORLD.
Aunt Bet was a perennial kid at heart. She always said she was sixteen for life. Every birthday we would celebrate her turning sixteen. But even if you think of her as a perennial teenager it doesn’t do justice to how cool she was. She preempted the 21st century by a few decades. She had a VCR—two VCRs, in fact—since the late 70s. If you are younger than 35 you will not appreciate the gravity of this, but the idea of watching things whenever you want—and rewatching things over and over again—used to be a radical concept. But Aunt Bet had hundreds of tapes of all kinds of stuff: old cartoons, classic movies, plays, Star Wars, Indiana Jones. She was YouTube before YouTube. Aunt Bet collected a wealth of culture and shared it with anyone who wanted, but especially her nieces and nephews. Because here’s the thing: we were at Aunt Betsy’s house, in Aunt Betsy’s room, all the time.
Aunt Bet, her cats (Sebastian and Augustine), and a selection of her many nieces and nephews, in the Greatest Place on Earth
The best sleepover location for me and my cousins was Aunt Betsy’s house. She would stay up all night with us watching movies, or playing games or cards, or just chatting and laughing. She had all the game systems in order: Intellivision, Atari, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, etc. And she loved playing as much as we did. She would happily and joyfully stay up until 4 in the morning playing Zelda with three 12-year-old boys.
Don’t hate on the Zelda II in my presence
She had early computer systems with complicated DOS Role Playing Games that would take over an hour to load then let us input inappropriate commands like “Chop Tom” (computer response: “That would give your brother a splitting headache”).
Swiss Family Robinson, the game
We were on the proto-internet chatting with strangers in the late 80s. We would play board games through the night, including unnecessarily intricate homemade tabletop ones like “Conquer the World” which took over ten hours to complete. She taught us how to play blackjack and poker, and our “for keeps” weekly games lasted until I was in my twenties.
Aunt Bet instilled in me my love of Science Fiction and especially Fantasy. She loved and shared her love of Star Wars, Star Trek, and the world of JRR Tolkien. Her adorable and heroic poodlish mutt was named Pippin, after Peregrin Took. She had an extensive library of everything from Dr. Seuss to encyclopedias and was as generous with all her books as she was with everything else in her life. So when my sixth grade class was going to read The Hobbit, I asked if I could borrow her beautiful hardcover edition, with a slipcover, gold runic letters around the border, and watercolor illustrations by Tolkien himself. Of course, she said yes without hesitation.
Aunt Bet’s Hobbit
Now I was a lazy fricking student. I disappointed almost every teacher I’ve ever had. For my big end-of-the-year book report (in either 4th or 5th grade) I choose a Garfield book. Yes, comic strips.
Subject of my first literary criticism
Yes, my teacher was shocked as well. I was far more interested in the idea of learning than anything that required work. I wanted to love The Hobbit and I wanted to be thought of as the kind of person that loved The Hobbit, but to be perfectly honest, my reading comprehension at that age was not spectacular. Having such a beautiful book to show off in class was in many ways a substitute for doing the hard work of reading slowly and carefully. I liked being praised with as little effort as possible, and this book gave me that.
I started reading The Hobbit, but don’t remember being hooked right away. It is a challenging book for an average sixth grader. I had only gotten two and half chapters into it when I marked my page one night and went to bed.
Content Warning: Violence against books
I don’t remember when exactly I opened it again. It may have been in class when I discovered that the pen—just the interior of a ballpoint pen actually—that I used as a bookmark had leaked epically.
Osmosis is real people. Black ink had oozed into the middle of the book and bled through the fine cotton pages. Seven pages were virtually obliterated.
A few more had noticeable ink on them.
In one direction, the bleeding only stopped because the glossy page which had a watercolor painting of Rivendell by Tolkien on it, which was now also ruined.
I had destroyed this book, this beautiful special book that one of the most important people in my life had lent to me.
I felt sick. I felt a weight of despair in the pit of my stomach. I could not begin to imagine confessing this to Aunt Bet. I could not imagine letting anyone know. I had no plan. But I knew I couldn’t tell. I was a cowardly little kid.
behold: a coward
Even though I knew I had done something terrible, I could not begin to imagine facing the consequences. I think I’ve always been a bit of a coward. So I didn’t say anything. We finished reading The Hobbit for class, and I didn’t say anything. I continued to see my Aunt Bet all the time. Throughout my childhood there wasn’t a week we didn’t see her, and I’m sure I wouldn’t go a month without sleeping over. And that did not change. I slept over. I played video games. I went to parties at her house. I stayed up late talking with my favorite person in the world. But I never said anything about what I had done to her book. Whenever I would think about it, I would push it down down down. This has always been my coping strategy: push down until I don’t even notice it.
Of course, it would pop into my mind. When I saw her book still in my room. When something about The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings was mentioned. And I would hope Aunt Bet wouldn’t say something. I certainly avoided those subjects around her for fear that she might remember and ask about her book.
I never said anything.
I finished 7th grade and never said a word. I finished middle school without mentioning the book.
I started high school with this weighing on my mind. Occasionally I’d find myself in a bookstore and check to see if they had something like her book. Sometimes they did; I could probably replace it for around $50. A lot, but not impossible. I thought about saving up and buying it so at least I could make a bold gesture when I finally confessed: “Look! I did something stupid, and hid it for too long, but I’ve done my best to make it up!” I would think. But I didn’t buy a replacement. I didn’t confess. I never said anything. I graduated high school.
I went to undergrad in town, so I continued to see Aunt Bet just as regularly. Heck, my main hangout during my college years continued to be her house, still playing video games and more often playing poker. But I still couldn’t say anything.
At this point it was pretty ridiculous. I was almost 20. When I thought about it, I wouldn’t feel great, but I was an adult and knew what I had to do. I would laugh at myself, but take no action.
I graduated college. I entered graduate school in Medieval Studies. The Hobbit was—and is—central to my sense of identity. I must have read The Hobbit three or more times in the meantime. I had my own crappy late 1980s paperback set of The Hobbit and LoTR. But I never said anything to Aunt Bet.
not collectors’ items
The first Lord of the Rings movie was released in late 2001 and I had the honor of taking Aunt Bet to see it. She and I had a long tradition of going on special trips together. Once I had my driver’s license, I considered it a special honor to get to “chauffeur” Aunt Bet around. This was far from an onerous task, since Aunt Bet loved to do cool things, like go to Broadway plays, Shakespeare in the Park, and take train trips to Washington DC. A conductor in Penn Station once looked at Aunt Bet in her wheelchair and said “she’s just going to have to take the escalator.” We laughed about it for years. I can’t calculate the hundreds of hours Aunt Bet and I spent traveling together, often just the two of us. So I took Aunt Bet to see The Fellowship of the Ring with my wife and siblings and I forgot to mention the book I still had borrowed from her and destroyed 15 years earlier.
I don’t recall if I took the book with me when I moved to Toronto to get my Ph.D. in medieval literature, but I did move to Toronto, and never told Aunt Bet what I had done to her book. I got married and never said anything.
I had a child—a beautiful daughter whose middle name is in honor of Aunt Bet—and I never said anything. I was a fully formed adult, husband, father, as well as nephew to my favorite aunt and never said anything.
At this point, in my 30s, there was no longer fear. That achy stomach had long gone away; it was just a question of forgetfulness. We returned to New York at least once a year and we always made a point of visiting Aunt Bet at least once, but there is always so much to do, I would forget to say anything. Then, back at home I might see The Hobbit on a shelf and think about telling Aunt Bet and think how silly the whole business is, and think next time I see her I will tell her for sure. But it slipped my mind. I certainly wanted to do it in person.
I finished my Ph.D. and moved to Cleveland to start teaching and I forgot to ever bring it up. I got a tenure track job in Fort Wayne, Indiana and never brought it up. The Hobbit was certainly with me in Fort Wayne, and I always thought to myself—bring it next time we go to New York! Bring it and show Aunt Bet what had happened. Get this off my mind! Clear my conscience. But it always slipped my mind.
I started to become more concerned about failing to ever tell Aunt Bet about the book. She has always had a complicated medical history, and was in and out of the hospital throughout her life. I knew that Aunt Bet would not always be with us, and I was afraid that I might miss my chance to tell her about the book. I was now more afraid that my dear Aunt Bet would pass away and I never took the chance to tell this ridiculous story to her. I was afraid that this book could become a permanent reminder of my cowardice and inability to communicate with one of the most important people in my life.
The book was especially on my mind in 2010 when news about The Hobbit movie was coming out. We visited New York that summer as always, and we stopped by Aunt Bet’s house as always. We sat around her dining room table and drank tea and chatted about nothing and everything. And I remembered! I didn’t have the book with me, but I remembered to tell her what I had done to her book and how scared I was for so long and ridiculous I felt for having never said anything. Her face lit up. She thought it was hilarious. “Oh, Dame, you can keep that book.” Decades of relief flooded over me. It was so easy. I could have done this at any point in the last twenty years. But I finally had. I was so happy.
Aunt Bet’s dining room table, where poker is played, tea is drunk, and reconciliation occurs
Aunt Bet went back into the hospital for the last time not long after that. Things did not look good. I kept thinking I should try to call; I’d tell her to stick around so I could take her to see the new Hobbit movies when the time came. But she died in November of that year, right before Thanksgiving. I had a lot of thoughts when I found out she had passed away; when I found out that I would never see her again. But it did not take me long to think about her book. About the book she had given to me. The last conversation I ever had with her was telling her about her book. My last image of her is her smiling at my ridiculousness and extending her boundless generosity. This book was able to become for me a reminder of her kindness and spirit and inspiration.
Not long after Aunt Betsy died, I started reading the Hobbit to her namesake, my daughter. She was only six at the time, and although we read something every single night before bed, I didn’t know if she was ready for The Hobbit. Tolkien can be a bit verbose. But we started reading, and she never complained or got antsy or bored. If anything, she seemed to enjoy it more deeply than other things we read. She didn’t really ask questions though; she would just listen as I read long chapters; sometimes I thought she must have fallen asleep, but she never did. She was just still as can be, listening to every word. I partly suspected she liked it just because I would read to her longer than usual. I was caught up in my own enjoyment of rereading The Hobbit. Storytime started to last more than the usual half hour, but I didn’t know how much she was actually getting out of the novel.
Towards the end, of course, Bilbo alone—as burglar—must enter the dragon’s cave and investigate the dwarves’ gold which they had travelled so far to recover. The tension was great, and my daughter could feel it.
At that age, she would often ask me to stop reading books that were “too scary,” but her sense of scary was usually more like “tense” or “suspenseful,” especially emotionally so. She’s always been deeply empathetic.
She didn’t stop me here though, but started talking about the book we had been reading together for weeks. “They didn’t think he was going to be brave,” she said in her sweet little voice. I was a little taken aback, since she hadn’t really commented on the book before this, but certainly impressed. She understood what was going on right now for sure. “That’s right,” I said. She went on, “He didn’t think he was going to be brave.” “Yeah,” was all I could reply. I was dumbfounded. It seemed her quiet self had been understanding far more of this novel than I realized. “But he was brave,” she concluded. Then thought for a moment. “That’s the best way.”
She turned back on her side so I could get back to reading to her, but my eyes were filled with tears. I couldn’t even express to my daughter how overwhelmed I was at her pointed literary criticism. She got it. At age six, she knew exactly what this book was about. They didn’t think he was going to be brave; he didn’t think he was going to be brave. But he was brave. That’s the best way.
It is the best way. And I was so happy to share it with her.
I wish I had her reading comprehension when I was six, or even in sixth grade. Maybe if I had read The Hobbit more carefully as a child I would have learned a valuable lesson sooner. Maybe I could have had the courage of Bilbo and faced my fear decades sooner: confessing a silly accident instead of becoming an accidental burglar for a couple decades. That would have been the best way. I am so glad a finally did though, before we lost Aunt Bet. I hate to think that this book could have been a permanent reminder of my cowardice in failing to be honest with one of the most important people in my life. Instead, I have this book as a gift which connects me, Aunt Bet, and my daughter. That’s the best way.