2021年6月30日 星期三

We’ll Get Along … When Pigs Fly

Finding peace with my son in the pages of 'Charlotte's Web.'

We'll Get Along … When Pigs Fly

By Bonnie Tsui

Charlotte Mei

Lately my 8-year-old and I have been butting heads. We're quite alike, as family members go. Not only do photos of Teddy and me as chubby babies, toddlers and grade-schoolers overlap seamlessly — save for my sprouting pigtails — but our temperaments, too, have much in common. We share an easy laugh, a sunny disposition and emotional sensitivity to other people, which is generally a good thing, but lately we've verged into mutual tantrums. Meltdowns had never been my M.O., but they have become his, and he is preternaturally gifted at igniting my fury, so we blow up together.

A dear friend from college, always gentle in face and manner and now applying those traits to the fullest as an Episcopal minister, told a group of us once: "I never knew my capacity for rage until I had children." I'll paraphrase as it applies to me: I never knew I could yell this loudly until children came out of my body.

Like Teddy, I was always soft-spoken, to a fault. I was told to speak up well into adulthood. But when I became a parent, something changed — my diaphragm can now tap into the volume reserve of an opera singer. The caveat is that it can only be activated by my children, or in thunderous incantation of their names: "FELIX! TEDDY! GO TO BED!" Their bickering is incessant in the evening.

Right up until the moment the squabbling starts, however, those same two children are often reading. Reading is something our family agrees on fundamentally, elementally, constitutionally. There is limited couch-related real estate in our living room. My husband and I are always jockeying for the good spot on the love seat by the window. It is ideal for one horizontal body with a book, but can, if necessary, accommodate two bodies and two books, with overlapping limbs.

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We read at all hours of the day. I almost wrote especially in the morning and the evening hours, but that would be a lie. Currently it's lunchtime, and we all have our faces in books. Felix and Teddy have been more than capable of reading to themselves for many years now, but there is something special that happens when a book or author evokes a request for being read to: A tentative peace is restored. It happens when we crack open Roald Dahl, in particular the very juicy and naughty "The Witches"; "The Wild Robot" books by Peter Brown; and Greek mythology. And now, recently unearthed, my ancient, beloved, taped-together copy of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web."

Reading it aloud has done something to us. Teddy and I take turns, alternating pages. I listen to his voice and he listens to mine. We laugh, sometimes in anticipation of what the other is going to say. It's an exercise in empathy — with each other, and with Fern, Wilbur, Charlotte, and the tiny-yet-enormous dramas of the Zuckerman farm. Even with that rather unpleasant rat, Templeton, who nobody seems to like. When I read Wilbur's plaintive cry out loud — "I don't want to die!" — my eyes fill. I remember my 6-year-old self saying those very words to my mother, in full-body resistance to a visit to my great-grandfather's grave. I see Teddy tear up, too. We reckon with life and death, together.

It all calls to mind a very specific feeling from my childhood, after some perceived injustice involving my parents. I recall slamming the door to my room, then writing furiously, righteously, in my diary: "I will never, EVER, forget this feeling of being a kid. I will always remember and I will always understand MY kids, when I have them."

Of course I forget the specifics of the long-ago slight, and the ensuing fight. There is a Templeton-sized hole gnawed into my memory when it comes to what actually happened, but I remember the feeling. The feeling, of course, was what mattered. I wanted to be seen, and heard, and recognized as someone who mattered. And I have been reminding myself, when I am forced to confront a Teddy transformed by uncontrollable feeling, to navigate the space between us with that particular understanding as an antidote secreted away in my pocket.

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Even in the act of doing it, I understand that reading "Charlotte's Web" together is a moment I am freezing in time. It doesn't escape my notice that Teddy is 8, the age of Wilbur's tender fledgling owner, Fern. Teddy's older brother, Felix, is 10, the same age as Fern's older brother, Avery. Felix doesn't join in our read-alouds, but he can be seen lurking around us as the story unspools day by day.

Summer is about to end in the book; in the here and now, summer is just beginning. Charlotte knows she doesn't have much time left to enact her miracle and save Wilbur from an untimely death, before she herself has to take leave of her beloved friend. The crickets are already singing their song of nostalgia. Everything comes to an end, and everyone on the farm knows it.

Me, I'm listening, watching, remembering. Reading each page as slowly as I can.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of "Why We Swim." Her first children's book, "Sarah and the Big Wave," was published in May.

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