I don’t so much remember that my mother read to me as a child—it’s more that I know it, the memory some subatomic particle long ago charged by sight and sound, and liable to reawaken when cued.
Books we encounter as children steal into our psyches in a different way than adult books do. Scanning a shelf, seeing an adult title I know and love will make me pause, but children’s books—certain books—will stop me altogether.
Certain books, many books. Where the Wild Things Are, The Snowy Day, Bedtime for Frances. The Red Balloon, of course. Dr. Seuss books, for whatever reason, not so much. But Robert McCloskey’s books, the counting books of photographer Tana Hoban, and (a passkey among writers, I find) Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth—seeing any one of these books arrests me, transports me back not just to a time, but a place, a voice: my mother’s.
My mom was a champion read-alouder, and to judge from her grandchildren’s pleasantly fogged looks whenever she reads to them now, she still is. A former English teacher, she’s a good reader, but that’s not all of it. She doesn’t perform the books so much as transform them, discarding the story’s husk of paper and ink and glue and conjuring, in the minds of her listeners, some pure form of the story itself.
Thanks to her reading, I know to this day what Max’s sandwich tastes like at the end of Where the Wild Things Are. How the policeman, Michael, moves in Make Way for Ducklings. And, most unsettlingly, what it felt like—physically, emotionally—to enter the world of DuBose Heyward’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.
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Heyward published The Country Bunny in 1939. In many ways, it’s quite progressive. Cottontail, “a country girl bunny with a brown skin” and single working mother of 21, has to contend with the dismissive attitude of “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses” as she seeks to become one of the five Easter Bunnies who deliver eggs to children each Easter. In other ways, it’s less progressive: the final arbiter of the competition is an elderly white grandfather bunny who, at least initially, refuses to believe Cottontail can do the work because she has so many kids at home. But he comes around when she proves her worth, and her children demonstrate they can take care of themselves. She gets the job.
My mom loves this book. My wife, mother to our three girls, loves this book. Our girls do, too. I love The Country Bunny as well, but in a held-breath way: it’s harrowing. After spending a long Easter eve delivering eggs worldwide, Cottontail is “very tired” and only wants to “take the little basket that was set aside for her own children and go hopping home.” But Grandfather has one more task for her: “Far off over two rivers and three mountains there is a great mountain peak. And in a little cottage on that peak is a little boy who has been ill for a whole year, and who has been so brave that he never once has he cried or complained.”
For him, there is reserved a special egg that “glitter[s] like a diamond.” For him, Cottontail takes a deep breath, climbs high through the snow and ice, falls, receives magic golden shoes, and then tries again. Success. She delivers the egg directly into “the hand of the beautiful sleeping boy.” I can hear my mother say these words. I can hear her ask, see him? I cannot hear what I say in reply because I was always too scared to say anything: the boy is oddly drawn, his face feverishly pink, his hair a lather of lemon-yellow curls, his nose porcine. I see him, hear him, feel his fever as though it were mine: he is ill, has been sick for a year.
Not too many years after my mother first reads me this book, I too, will fall ill; not for a year, but seriously enough that I’ll spend many days on the children’s floor of a lonely hospital overlooking a cemetery. Surgery will leave a 10-inch scar. My mother will sit with me through my entire recovery. She will knit an afghan for me that I still have. She will read books for me that I still love. She will lead me through jungles, snowy sidewalks, Paris streets, Boston duck ponds, phantom tollbooths. She will climb mountains of ice and snow.
She will show me the precious egg the boy is given: see? I do, and I hear her when she tells me what the book does not: the boy, he will be fine.
Featured Image: Matt McCarty; Author Photo: Patrick Manning