This evening, Smalldaughter read herself to bed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” The last person who read that to me was my mother, a lean redhead with a lilt in her voice at bedtime belying the circumstances surrounding her. We never knew why she barely ate at the table, took her at her word when she said she’d been sampling the cooking as she went.
I remember the look in Mom’s eye when she realized she could wear my blown-out leather sneakers, starting in the fourth grade. They were good sneaks — Adidas Stan Smiths — and I’d wear them everywhere: baseball, football, running to school. Every year a fresh white pair, because we were allowed to wear tennies to school only if they were made of leather and only if we kept them clean. They always ended up grass green anyway, and when my feet blew through the sides she’d wear them “just for working around the house” until the soles fell clean off.
And every night she read to us. Every single night, even if she still had “bookkeeping” to do. Bookkeeping was Mom sitting up late trying to find money for taxes, food and the big spread of presents she somehow managed every birthday and Christmas after Dad left her with four kids and a Volkswagen Beetle.
We never had a store-bought cake, but one year she made me a white-frosted carp from one of her molded copper pans. I snuck a piece to my collie named Holly. We each had a pet. We each had a bicycle. We each had sports, music lessons, Scouts and Campfire.
Mom had hippie jeans with too-young trendy holes frayed through. You’d never guess she was a moderate Republican. You’d never guess she had special voices.
There was her voice for answering telephone calls. Telephone etiquette was serious business in the days of rotary dial Bakelite beauties, the receiver of which could be used to tenderize meat. It didn’t matter how many kids she was yelling at to “keep QUIET!,” when she picked up that call (who knew whether it was an important long-distance call, Publisher’s Clearinghouse, Dad in an Air Sea Rescue Albatross over the Pacific or just another wrong number for McCracken Freight Lines), pure debutante sugar would pour down the line in a perfectly over the top, hyper-modulated near-falsetto: “Hel-LOO-oo!” We hadn’t yet met any drag queens, thus had no context. Us kids were were seized by the notion that Mom might be momentarily possessed each time the phone rang.
There was her firm tone, less to be feared than the atmosphere-shredding SNAP of her bony fingers. One snap would flash our eyes open like the signal lights of panicked ocean crews.
Then there was her bedtime story tone. It was bagpipes and butterflies, rhythm and muse, fabulism made flesh. The softest comfort a child ever had, but she never made us feel small. Mom could invest “Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod” with more gravitas than any President of my lifetime has yet managed in political speech.
Mom never had any issues pronouncing the letter “R.” That was one difference between tonight’s rendition and those I remember. I also remember thinking that Robert Louis Stevenson knew so much about so many places that I could only hope to glean a fraction of it. In my childishness, I thought I’d never leave Portland to see the lands of myth and wonder Stevenson described in playful couplets, like these from “The Keepsake Mill.”
Home from the Indies and home from the ocean,
Heroes and soldiers we all shall come home;
Still we shall find the old mill wheel in motion,
Turning and churning that river to foam.
You with the bean that I gave when we quarrelled,
I with your marble of Saturday last,
Honoured and old and all gaily apparelled,
Here we shall meet and remember the past.
What a world to live in, where we all come home heroes from adventuring abroad. After Smalldaughter’s bedtime, I walked out to the kitchen table and sat down in front of her tablet, where she’d been practicing her cursive, feeling the power and joy of watching her own precious name flow pretty and strong from the end of a ballpoint pen (green, as it happens). I flipped the pages, thinking I’d leave her a little note in couplets, Stevenson-style.
It didn’t come out right. It’s bent, busted and distorted. Stevenson didn’t know everything. I know damn near nothing. I tore the page out to prevent her finding it someday in class when she’s working well and cheerfully in a world of parrots and pirates and fairies and goodness.
In a kid’s world, the difference between a swashbuckler and a buccaneer holds currency; you can tell the difference between a good fairy and an evil fairy just by the eyebrows; we are good children who respect our parents, come home heroes and settle our debts with a bean.
What a simple thing it seems:
Over the water and back again,
Five miles up above the fray
Where the armored dragons play,
Spitting fire and coughing smoke;
All Mars’ children run amok.
Children, listen when I say
There’s no happy veterans day.