What stories did you slip into your children’s souls at bedtime?
Poet Jim Daniels writes about this sacred space in his poem Talking About the Day.
Talking About the Day
Each night after reading three books to my two children—
we each picked one—to unwind them into dreamland,
I’d turn off the light and sit between their beds
in the wide junk-shop rocker I’d reupholstered blue,
still feeling the close-reading warmth of their bodies beside me,
and ask them to talk about the day—we did this,
we did that, sometimes leading somewhere, sometimes
not, but always ending up at the happy ending of now.
Now, in still darkness, listening to their breath slow and ease
into sleep’s regular rhythm.
Grown now, you might’ve guessed.
The past tense solid, unyielding, against the acidic drip
of recent years. But how it calmed us then, rewinding
the gentle loop, and in the trusting darkness, pressing play.
Daniels contrasts “the happy ending of now ” — which is actually then — with the true now, “the acidic drip / of recent years.” Things have changed in this family. “Grown now,” with all the “solid unyielding” sense those words convey.
Yet the speaker takes solace remembering how the ritual of reading to his children “calmed us then.” How even the darkness was “trusting.” All he has to do is press “play” in his mind to return to “dreamland.”
When our kids were babies, we read the same bedtime story to them every night. This ritual was my idea. We read at other times of day, but reading this particular story would signal bedtime. We stopped the practice when the kids grew big enough to grab a book off the shelf and bring it to us to read.
For our son, the story was Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram. For our daughter, it was Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline. My husband can still recite both stories using the same inflections and gestures he used two decades ago.
Guess How Much I Love You was the cool book at the time. It’s a bedtime conversation between a father and son, Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare. The idea is that the son cannot separate himself from his father’s love. But it could be read as a competition of who loves whom the most. That’s how my husband saw it. So he changed the ending from “I love you right up to the moon — and back” to “I love you all the way to the moon — too.”
If our son picked up this board book now, would the actual ending surprise him?
I chose Madeline for our daughter after a friend gave it to us as a baby gift. Nothing deters that young girl’s spirit in that “old house in Paris / that was covered with vines,” not even a brush with appendicitis. Like Madeline, I love “winter, snow, and ice,” and our daughter does too. Miss Clavel, the nun at Madeline’s school, keeps her girls “in two straight lines / in rain / or shine.”
Did my daughter have this story in mind when, at 15, she chose to go to boarding school?
I’ve wondered what Little Nutbrown Hare and Madeline might look like as adults. Did Little Nutbrown Hare think his dad was an insecure jerk? Did Madeline have crippling anxiety from her 10-day hospital stay? Maybe she regretted saying “pooh-pooh” to that tiger. Maybe Little Nutbrown Hare would say those thornbushes tripped him painfully.
Although my children are grown now, I like to remember the “close-reading warmth” of their bodies beside me as we talked about the day and read together. As a new mom, I wanted these particular stories to nourish their souls. But once a story is in a soul, it does what it will.
In Jim Daniels’ poem, he keeps “rewinding / the gentle loop” of that bedtime ritual, perhaps because he can’t change the “Now.” He can’t help “pressing play.” But some brave day he will find a way to follow the lead of Miss Clavel:
And she turned out the light—
and closed the door—
and that’s all there is—
there isn’t any more.
Photo by Y’ama, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Megan Willome, author of The Joy of Poetry.
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
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L.L. Barkat says
What strikes me is how the stories become part of our souls, too, when we read them again and again to our children.
Then, even if the stories mean slightly different things to each of us, they are something we hold in common, one generation with the other.
I thought of this most when I read the part about your daughter (maybe because I have daughters 🙂 ), and it seemed to me that a story is, oddly, a kind of place where we touch. (Not quite a mind meld, but, yeah, something like that. 😉 )
During some particularly challenging times with one of my daughters, I found myself reaching for the old stories, to give courage to her (and, maybe, as it goes, courage to me, too). It is good to have the stories memorized (as your husband did, not even on purpose), because a single line, stated at an apt moment, recalls the whole, dearly and powerfully.
Megan Willome says
I like the idea of the story being a generational bond, one we can not only return to individually but within a relationship. That’s one I’m going to mull.
Will Willingham says
I don’t honestly remember a lot of (any in particular?) stories being read to me as a little person, but I do have clear memories of listening to fairy tales on an LP record player while I read along. But I do remember the ones I read to my kids. Goodnight Moon, a lot of Dr. Seuss. And of course something about 10 little monkeys.
(As a side note, I have this vague recollection about Madeleine giving me the willies for some reason when I was a kid, though I know I read it many times.)
Megan Willome says
I did the LP thing too. Thanks for reminding me!
“Although my children are grown now, I like to remember the close-reading warmth of their bodies beside me as we talked about the day and read together. As a new mom I wanted these particular stories to nourish their souls. But once a story is in a soul, it does what it will.”
Oh, did this take me back a couple of decades!
One of our favorite series was “Tales of Trotter Street” by Shirley Hughes, including Angel Mae, Wheels, and The Snow Lady.
The stories were heartwarming with their close family relationships, beloved pets, and caring neighbors.
James Herriot’s Animal Stories was another book we loved sharing together for much the same reasons.
Thank you for prompting these remembrances:)
Megan Willome says
Katie, I just checked out James Herriot’s Only One Woof. Tears of thanksgiving!
So glad you found some of his wisdom:)
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
Donna Falcone says
Like LW, I don’t remember being read to as a child but oh the songs my mom sang for me! SSDS (SameSoulDifferentStory). I have visceral memories of them and now when I think of certain songs she sang I have, of late, believed she was trying to teach me to be strong through the songs she chose…. the ones that resonated with her. And some were just plain silly and joyful… souls like a good silly story/song, too. 😉
Bedtime stories were a big favorite in our house raising two sons and I relate to what LL says – they do become a part of OUR soul too. Case in point, today someone came into our little church store to buy gift books for their new grand child. I was tickled that she bought A is for Azure… but when I saw Where the Wild Things Are I was transported back to our after dinner play times and told the story of how my husband called them Wild Rumpuses! I laughed to remember the claw fingers and rolling eyes and gnashing of teeth from my sweet little boys with the soft and shiny bowl cut hairstyles. Ahhh yes… my soul was enriched by such stories and how we celebrated them together. I wonder if they have any memories at all of the stories (that they are aware of). I suspect that as they either have their own or come to know babies and children, memories will spark – maybe only felt memories, but these are as valid as the ones they can easily retell and, sometimes, more powerful because they flow in the undercurrent of their souls. It will be fun to see what they choose to pass on.
Megan Willome says
Donna, I would not be at all surprised to learn that your mother sang those songs because she wanted you to be strong. And yes, it is that “undercurrent of their souls” that I was thinking about as I wrote this piece.
Thankfully, our souls have very deep pockets. 😉
One of the stories that became a favorite of my son’s was ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ – maybe because I acted it out in different voices. My son eventually took on a goat’s voice. I remained forever the ogre under the bridge.
My son donated more than 500 children’s books to his elementary school. (Yes, we never skimped on books. D. is still a huge reader.) I kept back a few, such as the marvelous Eric Carle books. I still have them on a shelf. They hold such beautiful memories of this mother’s sweet time with her son.
Megan Willome says
What a wonderful gift that school received! The fruit of many mother-son moments. (I’ve kept our Eric Carle books too.)
And the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” is such a fun one! You have to write a poem about forever being the ogre under that bridge.