I consider myself to be a mostly unsentimental person. I don’t wear a wedding ring. I didn’t keep baby books. I’ve never gotten misty-eyed over the first day of kindergarten. It is an absolute joy to watch my children grow, but I’m just not one to see their milestones as bittersweet. They’re getting older. I’m getting older. It’s all right on schedule and just how it should be. Time can be a little slippery and heartbreaking, but that’s the feeling of being alive, like the burn in my lungs when I swim down to touch the bottom of a lake. Pretending that there would be any benefit to encasing a childhood preciousness under glass or in amber runs counter to a truth I hold up each morning: there is always something to look forward to. The sight of my oldest daughter climbing into bed one night, though, surprised me. My throat caught and I felt that crushing impact of time.
Lena is nine and when taken in at certain angles — her cheek from the side or the swing of her hair as she runs — I can see the flicker of adulthood. Nine is a magical age and my daughter is a wonderful magician, pulling from what seems like thin air moments of astonishing maturity—sensitive observations, thoughtful conversation, wry little jokes. To be a parent is to balance between the endless and the finite. The unlimited love we feel for our children, our unceasing desire to do right by them is forever bumping up against the fixed boundaries of hours and days and seasons and years.
On the night that I watched my daughter climb into her bed, the edges of childhood felt hard and sharp. It was a new bed, a loft that stood nearly five feet off the ground. We have moved seven times since Lena was born. The loft bed was a request that I felt I owed her, a chance to make up for so many transient bedrooms now that we were finally settling into our first real family home. Earlier that morning, my husband had driven three hours to pick up the bed, which I’d spotted on Craigslist after weeks of slowly widening my search radius. I assembled the pieces while referencing a wordless YouTube video from 2013, jazzy flute music playing over impressive Allen wrenching. When it stood, I excited in the joy on my daughter’s face. This was something she wanted. This was something I could provide. It is a feeling familiar to many parents. It was golden and glowing and lovely.
She picked out sheets (purple polka dots) and we made up her new bed, her two favorite stuffies resting their doggish heads on her pillow. It wasn’t until she scaled the ladder that I realized what had happened, the rug that I had pulled out from under my own feet.
I wasn’t going to climb up there with her. A velvet rope had gone up that would keep me out of the tender bedtime ritual that I have loved since she was small — reading together in bed. Knuffle Bunny, Chrysanthemum, Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Ivy and Bean. I can recite Madeline by heart. Time together reading is something that I enjoyed and it’s also something that I took very seriously. As a child, reading did not come naturally to me. My cheeks still pink at the memory of stumbling over words when forced to read aloud in grade school. It was an embarrassment I did my best to hide and deny. I continue to be a slow, deliberate reader—even during the six years that I worked as a children’s book editor. I wanted Lena to love reading to spare her the embarrassment I had felt but also because falling in love with books built my confidence—and broadened my life. Books, I knew, would be there for her when I couldn’t be or when she didn’t want me to be. Books put words to our emotions, answer our questions, and open up our hearts beyond our own experiences. Books teach us how to be human.
Over the course of her childhood, we have read hundreds and hundreds of books in bed. The feeling of a paper scrapping against the blankets as I turn a page is a memory stored deep in the bones of my fingers. The sound of books shifting and falling off the edge her bed in the middle of the night is something I can identify half asleep, a room away. The ritual of bedtime reading is woven into the fabric of my family and into my identity as a parent. It’s foolish, but I never thought this, too, was something that would be outgrown.
That night, I kissed my hand and I touched her face as she settled onto her pillow, and I felt myself as an old-world mother waving her hanky at a departing steamer ship. I know that we will still read together other places — the couch, the car — but I cannot deny the change that has happened. Reading was something that we shared and now it will be something that is mostly hers alone. She’s ready for more challenging things — in life and in the books she reads — but, I just wasn’t fully prepared to let this part of her childhood go.
“Door open or closed?” I asked.
“Open,” she responded, beaming from her new bed. Then she said good night, clicked on a light, and adjusted a book in her lap.
Books may only be paper and board and ink, but reading aloud was my script in providing a cushion around the jagged and jaded parts of life. There’s a vulnerability that comes from leaving this behind — and a hopefulness that comes from passing it on. Children outgrow picture books and bedtime rituals and stuffed animals and skinned knees and so much else. Lena will also outgrow her new bed someday, too, and I just hope that bed, five feet off the ground, proves to be a sturdy little nest that will launch into a new stage of life confident, loved, and with a book in her arms.
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