In Memoriam Peter Caws: The Cat Sat On the Mat

One of my most treasured possessions is a thin square-ruled notebook, bound in buckram. It’s a “Glatigny,” a French brand I can’t find anything about, and was originally used by my father for “Notes for New School course 1966-7” (which I don’t think came to fruition?). He removed those pages, flipped it over, and turned it into a reading manual for me. I have only a few memories before I learned how to read, and once I did know how (age 5, probably?) I had my nose in a book pretty much every waking hour, so this manual was a significant turning point in my life. The title page calls it “Hilary Caws’s Reading Book,” but we always referred to it as The Cat Sat on the Mat.

I don’t remember the craving to learn to read (I do remember the satisfaction of making rows of squiggles and calling it “writing”), so I’m not sure if my father created this book in response to my request, or if he thought it was time I learned. I vividly remember the process. Each evening he would draw another page while I watched. He would show me the sounds (the syllable in parenthesis), examples in words (the second line), and then the bit of the story that included the words. The spinning out of the story night after night was part of the fun, but as I recall he wasn’t very happy with the drawing in #8 and felt like he was starting to run out of ideas. Besides, by then I had pretty much caught on – it even looks like I tried to help write the last word of #6.

This memento represents so many of my dad’s qualities. He was a born teacher. He overflowed with patience and creativity and willingness to devote time to help people (of all ages!) learn. He was willing to tackle things like drawing in which he knew he wouldn’t excel (other examples: playing piano, carpentry) but could do a workman-like job – he believed strongly that any human skill could be attempted. He was a loving and nurturing father. He had a wonderful sense of humor and play. I miss him very much and I’m so lucky to have this book!