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.
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