If you asked people in the know to describe me, the list would be over represented with synonyms for “efficient.” I like to think there would be a “clever” or a “witty” thrown in here and there, maybe a “thoughtful” or “insightful,” but you would almost certainly not find the word “sentimental.” Yet even I get sappy every now and again, especially when it comes to my kids.
It’s not always the usual schmaltz that triggers my maudlin mom moments—the loss of a front tooth and the gap toothed jack-o’-lantern grin that follows, or the first time someone “forgets” to hug me at the school gate. Those things squeeze my heart muscles, but I would expect them to. It’s the small moments that tap into some pool of nostalgic residue that catch me off guard.
Which is what happened the other day when I was dusting a bookcase in the bedroom my boys share. Now, it is true that in and out of weeks I have slowly weeded out the baby stuff and the board books. Sailing almost over a year (or 5) I have donated or gifted the many, many books my children showed no interest in. What is left, however, is our core collection: the books we have read over and over and over again, the ones with pages that are patched together with scotch tape, the ones with cracked and broken spines and missing staples. The books we’ve loved and loved well.
Standing there, I realized those white bookshelves hold the history of a decade of bedtimes. They contain a treasure map of my boys’ childhood in stories and words. Flitting my feather duster over the rows of books, I acknowledged, with a sudden pang of loss, that it has been a long time since we’ve read most of them.
There are a lot of memories of snuggles and cuddles on that shelf. There are nights and nights of drowsy eyes fluttering closed before I could reach the ending tucked in between book covers. That bookcase houses more than just books, it holds shared experiences bound together in page and word, in ink and illustration. How can I think of picking and choosing which of them to save and which of them to pack in boxes and pass along for someone else to enjoy?
“In the great green room, the was a telephone and a red balloon.” In that room “there were three little bears sitting on chairs.” We would stop to count them each night 1-2-3, a finger pointing at the page. How many nights did I sit with a chubby boy-child snuggled into my lap, a soft, downy head tucked into curve of my chin, and read those lines?
There were “two little kittens and a pair of mittens.” Those little bodies would squirm and wriggle, cuddling impossibly close. All the books about cars and trucks and things that go, little engines and tank engines, brave engines and more. How many journeys did the “Great Big Little Red Train” make, delivering my boys into sweet toddler sleep?
“And a little toy house, and a young mouse.” Sometimes we would read together on the sofa, or sometimes together in the big bed. Wrapped up in duvets and buffeted by pillows, we marveled over the bravery of the tiny snail on the tail of the great big, gray-blue humpback whale and squealed “no, no NO! That’s my Dad!” at the end of “Monkey Puzzle.” We took dozens and dozens of trips through the center of the Earth with Ms. Frizzle, and chased a constellation full of shooting stars with Thomas and Percy.
“And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush.” We giggled over Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack and Quack waddling into Boston Common and Officer Mike waving them through. We got lost in Charlie Cook’s favorite book and made room on our brooms. We roared our terrible roars and rolled our terrible eyes and gnashed our terrible teeth tucked into blankets by the dim shine of bedside lamps.
“Goodnight clocks and goodnight socks.” If I trip my fingers over well-loved spines I can trace back to see where your young tastes began to diverge. There are the books about flags and tornadoes and volcanoes that my older son favored, and the Bearenstain Bears and Magic Tree House for the younger. To my eternal disappointment, neither of my boys were fans of Dr. Suess. “Try them and you may!” I’d say, but they did not like those rhyming stories in a box or on a train or in the rain. But oh how we loved the exploits of that cheeky gray pigeon and laughed when Leonardo scared the tuna salad out of Sam. “Aggle, Flaggle, Klabble!” became part of our family lexicon.
“And goodnight to the old lady, whispering ‘hush.'” The feather duster passes over Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter, books that still await my younger son, books for him to get lost in, though he will likely chose to read them on his own, as his brother did. There are Percy Jackson stories and the Wimpy Kid series. Those books have their own importance of course, but it’s not the same. The words will be read to themselves, the voices they hear will be their own, not mine.
“Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.” These books. They make me long, just a little, for those yummy, chunky bodies, those soft hands and silky hair. Milk breath and soapy skin. They make me yearn for those still little toddler tummies, full and rounded, and the sweet sweat of baby dreams.
You’ll excuse me then just a moment to mourn the end of those nights, all those nights we sailed in and out of days and across a year (or 10). Those nights eyelids would drift slowly, slowly, slowly, before fluttering down to sleep, when I would finally whisper, like Father Rabbit, “I love you all the way to the moon. And back.”
I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell. I still whisper that sometimes to their sleeping bodies, lost in their loose tooth, tweenage dreams.