When I was in 7th grade, my teacher announced to our class that would be reading A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. We thumbed through the book and groaned in unison. Too long! Too old-fashioned! Too hard!
Funny thing, though. When I came home complaining about the unfair expectations put on me, my mom wasn’t the least bit sympathetic. In fact, she insisted I sit down and tell her what the book was about.
“I don’t know,” I grumped. “Something about the French Revolution.” Then, to prove my point about the unfairness of it, I read her the first page:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Mom asked what it meant, so I told her what my teacher had told us: Paris and London. Revolution and respite. Charles Darnay was a reluctant French aristocrat and Sydney Carton was the British barrister who defended him in court. Oh, and it just so happened that the two men looked amazingly alike. I told her about Lucie Manette, the sweet young thing both men loved, but who married Charles Darnay.
“Is that all?” Mom asked. “Didn’t you read any more?”
I told her I had to read the next chapter for homework.
“Good!” Mom said. “Why not read it right now? Out loud, to me?”
That started our regular after school appointment. As soon as I came home, I told my mother everything I learned about the previous chapter, then I read the next chapter to her.
When we began, neither Mom nor I knew much about the French Revolution, but by the time we finished, we understood a great deal. Excesses of wealth and power, and the horrific response they spawn. The power of plot twists: Madame Defarge in her husband’s wine shop, knitting, knitting, knitting. Together we searched out underlying themes: Sin and redemption. Death and resurrection. And most wrenching of all to my thirteen-year-old heart, the power and sacrifice of love.
As the end of the book drew near, Charles Darnay ended up imprisoned in the Bastille, sentenced to die by the guillotine. But just when all looked lost, Sydney Carton had him drugged and secreted away in a carriage headed for London, then he took Charles’ place in prison. To Lucie, Sydney vowed:
I will give my life to keep one you love beside you.
Mom called time out and went to get us a box of Kleenex. Good thing, too, because Sydney Carton went to his death, albeit without regret.
It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known before.
Charles and Lucie made it safely back to England, and they named their baby son after Sydney. Mom and I liked that chapter so much I read it to her three times.
My mom was sorry that the book was finished. I was too. And I will never forget that special time we had together.
I wish you were still here, Mom, so I could tell you this myself.
And also wish you a happy birthday.
“Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”