I arrived home from a Historic Preservation Committee meeting around 9 one night and was surprised to see my daughter’s window all lit up. Penelope’s bedtime is around 7:30 p.m. A well-lit window is not a good sign.
I grabbed my bag and rushed into the house. Bernadette hovered over the kitchen island. The white toddler monitor crackled; it’s yellow and red lights flashed like a smile.
“Come here. You’ve got to hear this,” she said. I leaned in and listened. Penelope’s voice rang through the bursts of static.
“Tushy . . . . tushy . . . tushy . . . tushy. . . .all done.” Thunk. Pause. “Moo moo sere . . . moo moo shere . . . woof woof sere . . . woof woof shere . . . quack quack sere . . quack quack shere . . . all done.” Thunk.
“She’s up there looking at books?” I asked.
“Yes, I was going to go up there, but I thought I’d give her a few minutes. I mean she’s looking at books.”
I understood. Bern and I have always loved to read. As a kid she loved going to Two Guys to spend her birthday money on Nancy Drew and Little House books; I remember my father driving me to the local library for the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Three Investigators” series. Our living room resembles a library crammed with old biographies, history books and a collection of fiction I inherited from my uncle.
We chatted briefly over a Rolling Rock before I headed upstairs to settle Penelope down again for bed. On nights when I put Penelope to bed, I let her pick three books to read, hiding as best as I can the ones I don’t like. Then I’ll read the first story and she’ll “read” the second. By her reading I mean she knows two or three words for each of her favorite books, and will repeat those words as she turns a page. The third book is read by her stuffed Elmo toy.
My Elmo impersonation is mediocre at best except with the undiscerning toddler population in our house. Besides, I think what I lack in vocal skills I make up with enthusiasm. Stuffed Elmo raises Penelope’s window shade to look for Mr. Noodle, peppers Penelope with questions about her book and cracks goofy jokes. (“You’re wearing pajamas with my picture! Wow! I have a pair of pajamas at home with your picture on it Penelope!”) When story time ends, I lay stuffed Elmo aside and click off the lamp. Penelope has taken to fumbling in the dark for stuffed Elmo and nestling it beside me as we finish the night with a few choruses of “Mama Buy You Me!” (which translates to “Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird”).
One day I will miss these moments.
Penelope’s door squeaks when I push it open. Sure enough, her favorite books are piled on the floor — which explains the “thunking” noises we heard — including those we just heard her reading: “The Tushy Book,” “Old McDonald” and “Big Frog Can’t Fit In.” She goes through phases with books; one week “Big Frog” is her favorite, the next it’s “Moose and Magpie.” I guess I do the same thing with authors. Presently, I’m on a William Styron kick, so it’s a minor miracle I’m not writing this:
Penelope and I could taste the haunting briny air as the cedar trees swayed and moaned under the weight of the squall. Books failed to ward off our emptiness. (OK, pretty lame, but you get the idea.)
I collect the books, give Penelope a peck on the forehead and let her lie down in darkness. Moments later, she slumbers peacefully.
I don’t know if Penelope’s growing fondness for reading is innate, or the result of seeing her parents snatching odd quiet moments with a book. I’m just grateful it has happened, and I hope it never ends.