I called  my older son in California the other day, kind of a warm-up call for Mother's Day, just to remind him it was coming up, in case he wanted to call me back on Sunday--but hey, I don't care about a made-up marketing holiday, do you? We got around to talking about Maurice Sendak; I was having a kind of rosy glow memory of holding my boys, fresh from their baths, in my arms, reading to them.

"Don't you remember, Mom?" said Alex. "Don't you remember how terrifying those books were? There was one that I could never look at again, I was so scared..." He remembered the title immediately, Outside Over There. The story is about a girl named Ida who is left to care for her baby sister. But she isn't quite paying proper attention, and goblins steal the baby away. It turns out Ida is a bit jealous of the baby, and resentful about her new responsibility.

Suddenly I remembered how uneasy Alex had been about having a baby brother. This only started when the baby began to crawl--and get into Alex's things and knock them apart and tear them up. The baby, Theo, was quite sure he was Alex--and what was his was his. One day, when he was a toddler, we were looking at photographs of the family, and Theo kept pointing at pictures of Alex and saying Me! Me!

No, no, Theo, that's your brother, I said. ME! He insisted.  So I held him up to the mirror above the sink, so he could see what ME really looked like--and he began to scream and sob. His Outside Over There moment. He was not his brother.

Alex really had a conniption when we read the Sendak book. It was so bad that I had to hide the book in a closet for years, lest he open it again. He made me read the story about ten times, that evening, but every time it turned out fine he only grew more inconsolable, and I had to go through the whole epic again. It was the first time, as a Mother, that I knew something profoundly psychological was going on with him, but I wasn't sure what to say; he couldn't tell me why he was so frightened. But he was clearly lost in terror. I began to worry that this moment, the reading of this book, would cause permanent psychological scarring. What if a child's wishes do come true--and they are horrible wishes? What if the baby doesn't come back, what if the baby isn't found? Of course, these fears of Outside Over There are as much the fears of a mother, and father, as of a child. The minute a baby is born, the parent pins her heart to her sleeve--anything outside over there can rip it right off. And does.

I wondered then about a steady diet of Sendak--did the books defuse fear? or fertilize the seeds of anxiety?

All I could do was hold my dear son close, and tell him I would never let goblins come.

And that was good enough. How lovely when we get it right. His tears wound down, slowly. I stopped reading, ignoring his demands for a repeat, and after he fell asleep, I hid the book in the back of a closet. Of course.

And now I only wish I could hide the things that will come and get them. I only wish denial were always the answer to life's biggest frights.

I hope my sons know that even though we are all in the land of Outside Over There, every single day--together--I'm doing everything I can, still, to gentle the goblins. And the wonderful thing is they can now do the same for me--and do.

Happy Mother's Day to all of you who are mothers--or who have ever had mothers. We'll always be outside, over here, waiting, watching.

1 comment:

Maureen Sullivan Stemberg, Interiors said...

Two words: very touching!

Happy Mother's Day to you...