Back in 2009, before I had kids, I spent some time with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa. I read the book; I listened (twice) to Paul Auster’s narration of it; I wrote a short appreciation of the book for this blog. I found myself enormously affected by Hawthorne’s descriptions of his five-year-old son (Auster concludes his introduction like this: “In his modest, deadpan way, Hawthorne managed to accomplish what every parent dreams of doing: to keep his child alive forever”)—though, as I said, I didn’t have any children of my own. Now I have two. I’m almost afraid to revisit Twenty Days. I get choked up, to the point of embarrassment, at the ends of Guess How Much I Love You and Little Bear. Hawthorne (or even Auster on Hawthorne) would destroy me.
I thought about Twenty Days a lot near the end of this past summer. My pregnant partner was away at a writing residency, and I was taking care of our not-quite-three-year-old daughter by myself for the first time. Like Hawthorne, I discovered that it was impossible to get anything done that required attention. (Here’s Hawthorne, at his most vexed, on his son Julian: “He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.”) I couldn’t even plant my daughter in front of a TV, as we don’t have one. (A brilliant joke I heard recently: How do you know if someone doesn’t watch or own a TV? – They tell you.) But we spent many hours tending to Curly the bear and Sip-Sip the cat (stuffed sidekicks, both), and we worked diligently on our comedy act. Our first joke, lifted from Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness: Knock knock. – Who’s there? – Dwayne. – Dwayne who? – Dwayne the bathtub, I’m dwowning! Our second joke, lifted from a sticker book: Doctor, doctor, there’s a bone caught in my throat! – Are you choking? – No, I’m serious!
And the books! We read so many books. One surprise: I don’t love Dr. Seuss, or at least not all of Dr. Seuss, in the way that most readers seem to. (I found myself trying to swap out The Cat in the Hat for Go, Dog. Go! or Yellow Elephant or Hey Willie, See the Pyramids or Mommy Daddy Evan Sage.) I prefer the off-centeredness of Rosemary Wells and the blunt sentimentality of Sandra Boynton (in, say, Happy Birthday, Little Pookie). I like the way that Maurice Sendak rhymes when he feels like rhyming in Outside Over There. (Margaret Wise Brown does something similar in Color Kittens.) I love the short-lived utopia of boy, cat, horse, and sparrow (“They lived together very happily for an hour and a half”) in Sendak’s Very Far Away. And, to echo Brian Michael Murphy (in his wonderful “Tesseract Days” post from a couple of months ago), I’m an enthusiastic fan of Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb (“Millions of fingers! / Millions of thumbs! / Millions of monkeys / Drumming on drums!”).
Now it’s four months later, and we mostly read Big Sister books before bedtime. I’ve had days this fall when I taught so much that I barely saw the kids. (As my partner wrote in The Millions a while back, one of the unexpected joys of parenting is, on occasion, being away from your children.) But I still think of those sixteen days in late August, when my daughter and I told knock-knock jokes and ate ice cream and read The Dream Pillow and Frog and Toad Are Friends and George and Martha Tons of Fun and Z Is for Moose (a favorite, since her name begins with a Z). I remember Zia’s joy whenever we came to the page where, as she put it, “the moose climbed in the ice cream!” “I don’t want moose cream!” she would exclaim. And her face would light up like twenty suns.