Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Gift of Story

I'm a story-teller—a reader, a writer. While Prufrock is measuring his life with coffee spoons, I measure mine with stories. The ones I tell, like birth stories and the loss of my father, and the ones that I read, from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle to Faulkner.

For a long time, I looked forward to having and homeschooling children because of the stories we’d share. I remembered the deep-down rapture of Charlotte’s Web and the magic of Narnia, and it was like the smell of baking brownies inside me—the tantalizing aroma of a good story waiting to be shared in a way that you can’t as a child, when language is still relatively new and in a way that you don’t in college classrooms, where E. B. White and L’Engle are too humble to grace the pages of a syllabus.

My oldest is nine. He’s read a lot, and for the most part, it’s been of a higher quality than what I’d read at his age. I haven’t read most of the books he’s reading, and he’s just on the cusp of the ones I remember loving most. Next year, I’m planning to give him A Wrinkle in Time because I read it when I was ten, and I think it has been my favorite story ever since.

We have not yet shared stories in the way I’d always imagined, and my son is old enough that this has recently begun to bother me. I read Charlotte’s Web aloud a couple of years ago like my second grade teacher read it aloud to my class when I was a child. I pre-read Carry on, Mr. Bowditch and then challenged my sensitive son to read it despite the grief and loss within its pages.

My husband and I have each taken a turn reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I finally found a copy of an out-of-print mystery that was my mother’s when she was little. Three generations of my family have loved The Ghost of Dibble Hollow now.

My point is that we do share stories. The Secret Garden, Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to name a few more. But the sharing that has happened? It reminds me of sitting on the back porch with my dad when I was a little girl. I’d catch frogs while he looked at the stars, and he would tell me, “Listen.”

“Listen to what?” I’d ask, but he would only say, “Shh. Listen.” And I would listen to the sounds of the night, straining to hear beyond them to whatever deeper thing it was that Dad was listening to, until I became distracted again by frogs and we were called in from the supernatural to the mundane.

I’d expected sharing stories and midnight talks with my children to feel like that, but I hadn’t seen it yet through my dad’s eyes. I’d expected to feel the magic the way I’d felt it as a child and to experience my children’s reactions to it firsthand.

Whatever is going on inside their brains and hearts, though, is theirs. It comes to me in bits and pieces, as they try to patch together the words I insist they share, but their feelings are filtered through language that is fresh. Instead of the child enrapt in the wonder of a brand new story, I am the teacher now, the parent, the voice pleading under the stars that little bodies be still for a moment and listen.

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