Like all parents of toddlers, I have a head stuffed full of new stories — books read so often that their few words are, for better or worse, seared into my brain. It’s a mixed blessing, as most parents can attest. Beyond the beautiful, covetable objects that are illustrated children’s books, I always knew that I wanted stories at the tip of my fingers, to recite while I drove, or to whisper in the dark, without the need for pictures, or pages — but many of the books I found myself remembering without volition were not exactly literary masterpieces. I could reel off the full text of Noisy Bottoms (a gift from the girls’ godfather and, much to my consternation, they love it), but who on earth wants to hear that? I wanted above all else to transmit to my daughters my own love of reading, and so I longed to find language that delighted me, too, and which would bear up to the endless repetitions demanded of childhood tales. If I was bored, I reasoned, they would know it.
So it was to A.A. Milne I turned, who had been a stalwart of my own childhood — in particular to Milne’s two slim volumes of poetry, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Shards and fragments of both books have been embedded in my memory since earliest childhood but most of what I recalled was simply a feeling — of warmth and safety, of the sweet humor and the utmost respect that Milne afforded the things that really matter to a child. “What is the matter with Mary Jane? / She’s crying with all her might and main, / And she won’t eat her dinner — rice pudding again / What is the matter with Mary Jane?” Poor Mary Jane. If only someone could see that she just wants toast for once, or an omelet!
In “Forgiven,” a little boy is angry with his nanny for allowing his beetle to escape, but together they go hunting for him: “We went to all the places which a beetle might be near, / And we made the sort of noises which a beetle likes to hear.” The poems make me laugh, and their simple rhymes and repetitions mean that an adult reader can’t help but recall them after a few readings, almost without effort.
My mother read me A.A. Milne, just as her father had read it to her. The other night she was over at our house during bedtime while I was reciting “The King’s Breakfast,” in which the king needs butter for his toast, so the queen sends the dairymaid scurrying to the barn to ask the cow, who suggests that the king might like to go out on a limb for once and try some marmalade instead. “I always wondered when I was a child,” my mother whispered, “why he couldn’t have both? After all, they’re not at all the same.” My daughters adore the poem, as do I, as does my mother, as did her father, who first read them to her. What a thing. And because they bring me joy to read, whole poems have begun to appear in my head seemingly without effort.
My favorite lines come at the end of “Us Two,” a love story between a boy and his bear:
“So wherever I am, there’s always Pooh,
There’s always Pooh and Me.
‘What would I do?’ I said to Pooh,
‘If it wasn’t for you,’ and Pooh said: ‘True,
It isn’t much fun for One but Two,
Can stick together,’ says Pooh, says he.
‘That’s how it is,’ says Pooh.”
Now those are lines worthy of remembering.