Twelve-and-a-half years ago I was about to have a child. At the time I liked to think I had already earned some credit toward parenthood by walking and cleaning up after my dog, but I knew nothing whatever about children, indeed my ignorance transcended any of the regular anxieties about changing a diaper to the extent that it hadn’t even occurred to me that diapers were part of the bargain. If I wasn’t one of those people who grumble about children taking up too much space on the sidewalk or in conversations, then it was honestly because I do not remember them inhabiting my neighborhood until one was inhabiting my home. You may call this narcissism - and you would probably be right - but those might have been hobbits scrabbling around my knees for all the attention I had given their mysterious demands.
When the baby had grown into his name, and I was finally able to refer to myself as a father without picturing a much older man, my wife returned to work, and to the unthinkable physiologies of pumping. We thought we could manage without formula, and we did, but just barely. My bottle management – the day-old’s and frozen’s and leftover droplets - became just a part of our weekly high wire act. We – the strange baby and I – took the dog for long walks, we read from the same two books - Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie - and we huddled together in the evenings when precious ounces gave way to airy sucking noises – first halting and incredulous sounding, finally knowing and outraged – as we awaited the return of the motherlode.
We got through. The child that was our experiment turns out to be a faster swimmer, a better public speaker, a prouder, more credible advocate than his parents, and he isn’t even five feet tall. He regularly forgets his shoes, his backpack, and probably, sometimes, his name. But he wakes himself up, he pops in his contacts, and he walks himself to school through a neighborhood that bears little resemblance to the landscape of his baby years - past a bank that used to be a deli, a wine-bar that used to sell hardware, a bookshop that turned into an antique store that starred as a bookshop in a famous movie, another bank, four traffic lights, two liquor stores, corrosive advertising, air conditioners falling out of the sky. He listens to Cake, he watches The Office and, like me, laughs when he’s probably not supposed to. This child – I swear, he’s like a little person or something. Yet my son will still ask me to read to him.
Which I do, and I must, because I’m afraid of what might happen if he ever stops asking, like with all of the other stuff he no longer needs help with. And he emphatically does not need help with the reading, in fact I am confident that whatever little voice it is that carries him through four-hundred pages on an average literary weekend is more compelling than the stumble-mumble issuing from my mouth. Maybe he’s being kind. If so, I’ll take it, I’ll wonder at the little accidents that resulted in his generosity, and continue to bookmark our respective developments with whatever is handy:
The time he surrendered his two front teeth on the edge of a magnificently solid coffee table, this while skating around on his socks before Gap had the fantastic idea to rubberize their stitching. One tooth hung on, dangling bloodily for a week before we finally gave up hope. He was two, maybe three, but I remember this more clearly as a period when we were reading I Had Trouble in Getting To Solla Sollew, as well as something called Owl at Home about a feathery little guy who cannot figure out that the scary bumps at the end of his bed are actually his feet. We read these over and over, mostly because I was familiar with their respective sections – Seuss and Early Readers – in the scary gymungo bookstore that used to be our neighborhood post office. When somebody finally escorted me through to the picture books section I thought Oh! Twenty-two bucks! And then I went back to reading about One Wheeler Wubbles and Quilligan Quails. And Owl, whose enduring dimness was becoming a comfort to at least one of us.
Sometimes I splurged. After the thing with the teeth, but before he went off to pre-K, I plunked down a pretty big wad for something called Billy and the Big New School. I must have been about three-and-a-half years into my fatherhood training at this point – still a fool - nevertheless the book proved not so unnerving, despite the obvious parallels. Billy adopts a grubby little bird, feeds and nurtures it back to health, then sets it free into the big, blue world. It’s really that simple. Yes, he’s scared of school, but the story is diverting enough, the pictures so panoramic it hardly feels like an exercise in awareness. Because that’s probably the scariest thing about that big blue world, isn’t it? All those exercises? The awareness?
That bookstore – the one where the post office used to be – took some figuring out. In part this was our evolution, and in part the institution’s, but it gradually became no less welcoming than the smaller stores it was supposed to have replaced. When airplanes flew into the World Trade Center, I ran and got my son from school. Neighbors, some dusty, came streaming up the middle of major avenues. Barnes and Noble (for that was what we had learned to call it at this point, rather than That Gymungo Bookstore) stayed open for a couple of hours, as they, like everyone, could hardly conceive of any other way to react. We – and the staff – were about the only ones there, looking for a particular book of no relevance at all, except that it had recently been on our minds, and anything from a couple hours or a couple of days ago seemed better worth replaying than the endless loops of footage we would need to witness in the following weeks. My son was five, going on six. The Wump World was the book – about aliens, the environment. It was a pretty excellent book.
So too The Little Boat, about a bit of Styrofoam that travels across oceans from one child to another, and which we happened to be reading around the time my second son was born. If you worked hard enough at it, you could possibly find some poetry in this, but mostly things just happen, and we probably have our hands full just trying to remember all of the happenings in this life without making sense of them as well.
Twelve years ago I became a father. Four years ago I sent my son to the deli to buy juice. Eight years ago, during our Solla Sollew period, we were waiting for the light to cross the street outside of a diner that was doomed to become a skincare boutique. It was cold, early evening, and we were just coming back from walking the dog.
“Is it fun being you?” he asked, pretty much out of the blue.
It was. I remember. Let’s read.