Monday, January 22, 2007

Book of Life

Last week, Eleanor and I finished reading Charlotte’s Web. It was her virgin run, and I told her that once we finished the book, we could go see the movie in a real movie theater. Setting her chin determinedly, thinking of the fun of her first movie-theater experience, Eleanor replied, “Let’s skip to the last chapter, read it, and go straight to the theater.”

We persevered in our one-or-two-chapters-per-night pace. Knowing Eleanor’s overdeveloped sense of empathy, I warned her of the sad part in advance. When Charlotte died, Eleanor was very quiet and her body curled in on itself. I stopped reading: “You okay, Eleanor? How are you feeling?” She bravely held back tears, asking, “Is Charlotte going to come back alive? Is she going to stay dead?” I told her we’d have to wait to the end of the book to be sure, but that I thought she would stay dead. Eleanor’s lip quivered as her mind wandered back to last Easter, and then—following the example set by Fern’s dramatic rescue of Wilbur—she pronounced the injustice: “It’s NOT FAIR that Jesus got to come back alive and Charlotte doesn’t!”

After several weeks, we completed the book, and journeyed to the theater for Eleanor’s cinematic initiation. I was excited for her, but also a little concerned that the thrill of the movie would overshadow the cozy togetherness we’d enjoyed while reading the book. To my surprise, after the movie, when I asked her whether she liked it, she stated “Yes,” with gusto, but then a long “buuut, it did leave out some parts, didn’t it?” I picked her up and hugged her; thankful for her critical nature, grateful that in the future she might still appreciate the value of reading the book before seeing the movie. “A like-minded daughter,” I thought, exaggerating the scene beyond reality, “A lover of literature! What a gift!”

Last night I ordered this quarter’s Book Club selections: we’re exploring a memory theme, so all of the books deal with memory in some way or another: The Giver by Lois Lowry; A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier; and Oblivion by Peter Abrahams.

Eleanor snuck into my lap as I was net-surfing, looking for a used-book seller in my area, hoping for an Miracle like last time: I had ordered the book at 9 a.m. and found it standing sentry at my front door by 1 p.m. (it turned out that the “seller in Washington,” was in fact—in a stroke of environmentally-friendly luck—just 2 blocks away from me, and she’d just walked it right over.) “What’re you doing, Mama?” Eleanor inquired, hoping to get in on the computer action. “Ordering books to read for my Book Club,” I responded, absorbing her body into my lap in the space between me and the keyboard. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

E: (Exploring a topic she has asked many questions about in the past): Why do you have Book Club, Mama?

Me: Well, it’s fun to get together with friends and talk about good books.

E: What do you say about them?

Me: (Omitting the details of how we cavort, drink good wine, and dish about work, kids, and politics): We usually start with whether we liked the book, and then we talk about whether it was well-written, what it meant, and a lot of other things.

E: When will I be big enough to have Book Club?

Me: Hmm. That’s a good question. (Pulling an age out of my Hat ‘O’ Arbitrary Parenting): Probably when you’re a third grader. If you had a Book Club, what would you say about Charlotte’s Web?

E: Umm…I would say that I liked the book, except (scrunching up her forehead) for the sad, sad part when Charlotte the spider got dead.

Me: That’s a good start. Then a friend in your Book Club might say that Charlotte’s death was a necessary and important part of the story…((I mentally finished the conversation with an imaginary Third Grade Eleanor): …illustrating sacrificial love, and the value of a life well-lived, that life is richer when we help others. Remember the part where Charlotte says “What’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, and we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” Do you think that, like Charlotte, we can offset the ugliness in our lives by doing acts of kindness?)

I looked forward to the distant day when I can curl up like a cat on the couch, me at one end, and a daughter or son at the other, each of us absorbed in our own books but sharing the warmth and intimacy of a common blanket. Then I caught myself.

It is sometimes difficult for me to live in the moment, to anticipate developmental milestones in a way that doesn’t eclipse the beauty of the here and now. Like Eleanor, sometimes I want to skip ahead to the good stuff. Last night, with thankfulness, I focused on Eleanor’s love of Big Girl books, and I reminded myself to take each day, one chapter at a time.


The Evacuee said...

Brockmeier's book is a swell one to discuss themes of memory, but I won't spoil it for you. I can say only that its premise still haunts me to this day.

bgirl said...

your ability to be so present and thoughtful with your kids is such a gift. even as you wait for the sharing moments that lie ahead, you always seem to know when one is happening right in front of you.