She read. They listened, staring at the pages.
As her voice rose in a loud whisper, their eyes would widen. In the story, an adventure was about to unfold for young, mischievous Max, sent to bed without his supper.
“And he sailed off, through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year, to where the wild things are!”
I can still picture my wife reading “Where the Wild Things Are” to our boys as they peered over her arms at the monsters drawn so vividly by author Maurice Sendak, who died last week at age 83. Those sons are adults now, but they remember, not just the book but the bedtime narrations by their mom.
Reflections by millions of fans on Sendak’s masterpiece of children’s literature dovetail neatly with today’s celebration of Mother’s Day. The comforting sound of a mom’s voice reading a story lets kids drift into sleep more gently. The ritual can be a labor of love. Usually, the mother is exhausted and in far greater need of rest than the child. Like Max in “Where the Wild Things Are,” the youngsters may have just put up a fight over undesired veggies on the dinner plate, a TV show coming up after bedtime, or toys scattered in the hallway.
Yet, a truce occurs. Pajamas happen. The story begins. And, more often than not, both the weary mother and disagreeable child end up snoozing as the book slips from her grasp, over the blanket and onto the floor. It’s a win-win.
Memories of those instances linger. Years — OK, decades — later, I’ve not forgotten the vocal inflections my mom used for the characters in “The Adventures of Brer Rabbit.” That tale, buried inside a thick, brightly illustrated compilation of Walt Disney movie adaptations, made me laugh as a kid. Actually, Mom made me laugh, and then fall asleep.
Fortunately for me, I got to witness the magic firsthand, watching my wife read to our sons and our daughter. Their favorites tested her theatrical skills, especially the tongue-twisters by Dr. Seuss and the British dialects in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” The academy still owes her an Oscar for those efforts.
The ultimate challenge was reciting the lines by the character Hagrid in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Our youngest son was still honing his reading skills when that first installment of the bizillion-selling series was released in 1997. Hagrid was a burly, lovable giant, almost 12 feet tall, with a choppy accent that author J.K. Rowling said she patterned after the Welsh branch of the Hell’s Angels. Makes your eyelids heavy just thinking about it, right? Well, for a 7-year-old in Prairieton, it was a saga he eagerly anticipated his mom picking back up, night after night.
“Where the Wild Things Are” required a Shakespearean performance. As the story goes, young Max, having escaped the punishment of solitude inside his room, sailed deep into the imaginary forest where he became the “king of all wild things.” Those creatures were noisy and frightening (to all except Max, that is). To capture the drama, my wife narrated in an escalating, animated voice.
“And when [Max] came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars! And gnashed their terrible teeth! And rolled their terrible eyes! And showed their terrible claws! Till Max said, ‘Be still.’”
Of course, Max eventually ends his getaway, deciding, “I’m lonely.” He “wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” Saying goodbye to all the wild things, he sails back home to his room, where he finds his supper, still hot. That last line always earned a grin from the boys.
Other bedtime tales were more contemplative. Our daughter enjoyed reading “The Giving Tree” with her mom. That book, written by Shel Silverstein and published in 1964, follows the relationship between a boy and an apple tree. Unselfish to its core, the tree repeatedly provides for the boy. Its branches anchor his swing. Its shade cools him on a hot day. Its fruit gave him something to eat. The tree loves him, and the kid is happy.
As the boy grows up, the giving becomes greater. Finally, on the brink of adulthood, the tree sacrifices all by letting the young man cut it down, so he can build a boat to sail away, leaving behind just a stump. Decades later, the boy — now an old man — returns, but the tree — now a stump — sadly reminds him it has nothing left to give. The old man consoles the tree, saying he doesn’t need much, just a quiet place to sit.
And so he does.
Turns out, after all of the years of giving and receiving, it’s love that actually bonds the boy and the apple tree.
“And the tree was happy.”
Sometimes our daughter heard my wife read that closing line, and sometimes she was already asleep. Either way, her mom always smiled.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.