Often it’s a string of words that connect us, my sons and me. We talk by phone on the days we’re apart. The divorce is final. They hurt, and I hurt, and there’s nothing to be done about it now but to love each other through the hell of it.
I thought hard about what books to give them this Christmas. I want to have this with them, the sharing of lovely words.
I want this, but I feel them drifting into cotton candy. Our reading palate is like our eating palate; too much sugary junk and we lose our capacity to appreciate the delicate flavors in wholesome meals. To take an example, the boys are visiting relatives with different reading tastes. The older two boys are therefore reading Garfield comics.
And liking them. Oh dear God, they like them.
“What about Calvin and Hobbes?” I ask the eldest two in turn, as I work through the brotherly rotation, each passing the phone to the next. “Do you like Garfield as much as Calvin and Hobbes?” Trepidation as I await their responses.
“Oh no,” each says in turn. “Calvin and Hobbes is way better.”
There’s still hope, I tell myself. I can live in a grim world, so long as I get served up a thick slice of hope on occasion.
“How much Calvin and Hobbes have you read?” Nine year-old Eli asks me this.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I’ve only read it in the funny pages.”
“But what about our books?” Eli asks. A couple of years ago, a kind reader sent me a lovely, three-volume Calvin and Hobbes collection. This complete stranger is the last person, I’m pretty sure, who bothered to consult my Amazon wish list before giving me a gift.
Only, I never got to spend any time with those beautiful Calvin and Hobbes books, because my children immediately confiscated them. What followed was months of my sons giggling in corners, big hardbound books open in their laps, along with endless retellings of Calvin’s stunts.
“I haven’t read any of those,” I tell Eli, “because you and your brothers always have them buried under your beds or tucked into your closets.”
“Well, we’ve all read them now, so they’re open. You should read them.”
“I should,” I say.
They’re drifting, I’m drifting, and all that binds us are our tattered hearts and strings of words. I want to ground them in books that have heft, a heft that fortifies them, that points them to beauty and greatness and the world beyond this broken one. I want to read books with them.
Because I don’t have an adequate bibliography, and because we stumbled on it, my oldest and I read the Hunger Games trilogy. I consoled myself that the author is masterful at page-turning plots. Otherwise the writing is clichéd, dull. Clichés and condensed versions of novels and elevator music are all of the same piece, all for the purpose of avoiding thinking, all surely of the devil.
I tried to take comfort in the fact that I was reading with him, that we could talk about them. But I know I am reaching a tenuous place, where his thirst for words exceeds my knowledge of what an eleven year-old should read.
Eli, meanwhile, tried to get into the Percy Jackson books, which bring Greek and Roman mythical creatures into modern times. I read one with him. I ended up thankful he didn’t like it. Next to those books, The Hunger Games is a literary feast. I don’t know how much complexity eleven and nine year-olds are supposed to be able to handle, but surely it’s more than this. Isn’t it?
I wanted to get them good books for Christmas, but I didn’t know what to get. The stakes are growing, too, because fast on the heels of Caleb and Eli is Isaac, slow to read but eager to learn, if only someone will sit with him long enough. So I turned to a friend who knows children’s literature, and she gave me recommendations.
I was so thankful. But when four year-old Isaiah opened his Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr books, he did the thing he does when he’s unhappy—arms flopped to his sides, eyes rolled back in his head, deep groan, limp body.
Isaac was equally ambivalent about his Billy and Blaze books. Eli wanted to be interested in Edith Nesbit’s Book of Dragons, but I could see it was forced. Caleb had read Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow, so he was cautiously optimistic about The Sign of the Beaver.
Still, not the reaction I’d hoped for.
So I pulled Isaiah into my lap, and I began to read Snipp, Snapp, Snurr, and the Gingerbread. He grumped at first, then he relaxed. Seven year-old Isaac crept close, then Eli. From the kitchen where he was making a snack, Caleb grew quiet. They all listened, and were drawn in, and grown peaceful.
I don’t know if it was my voice, or the story, or simply that their father was calm, but a peace settled on our home, on us. That fraying string of words grew stronger. I don’t know, in the final counting, how many words they will have heard me utter, but I pray the ones bearing peace and beauty far outweigh the rest.