The first time I read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (published in 1726), I was ten. My father and I were up in Michigan visiting my paternal grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I remember it was the holidays, and we spent Christmas morning hopping around between family members’ homes.
Some of our stops included my Great-Uncle Ray Pettypool’s house, which to my child eyes was filled with wonder and riches. We were dirt poor and his house on the lake represented wealth and success to my child mind. It was the first time I’d visited his house that I remember, but it stuck in my mind quite vividly. The grand Christmas tree with more presents than I’d imagined. Cousins, sons, daughters, and grand kids went to town Christmas morning. But there was nothing under the tree for me.
Not that I’d really expected it, but watching someone who obviously had wealth give so much and not give to me as well, stung. For a long time, I associated him with the character, Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The feelings were selfish and childish, but I was ten. And poor.
Our next stop was my Great-Aunt Cathy’s house. She also lived on a lake, but her house was cozier. She reminded me so much of my grandmother (her sister), and while she didn’t have a present for me either, she made an awesome lunch for us. (And any trace of presents was politely put away so as not to make the ten-year-old in the room feel bad.)
Our third stop was my Great-Uncle John’s house, which was also on a lake and just as lavish as Uncle Ray’s home. But walking into his home, I felt special. Uncle John had a room that served as a seating or receiving room, and in it, he had the most elaborate chess set. The walls were lined with books. Old hardbacks from before the dust-jacket days, with gold-gilded spines and amazing titles. The thick, shaggy rug was cream. No children were allowed in the room because we might break something or get dirt on the carpet.
That day, he instructed me to take off my shoes and follow him into the room. My hands shook as I untied my shoelaces, and let me tell you, that carpet felt amazing! He asked if I knew how to play chess. I’d never seen a chess board before. He tried to explain the game with it, and I’ll be frank—I never did really get the hang of who moves where and why—but after a very short game, he caught me gazing at his books. I didn’t really care about the carpet or the crystal chess pieces.
I wanted to see the books.
We talked literature for an hour or so, and when it was time for my father and I to leave (we had more my aunts and uncles to visit), my Great-Uncle John pulled one of his books from the shelf and handed it to me.
“This is Gulliver’s Travels. I read it when I was a boy,” he said. “I think you’ll enjoy it. Merry Christmas.”
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