Before my daughter was born, my co-workers at the adult literacy center where I worked held a baby shower that was all books. Each of the adults at the party brought a favorite children’s book as a gift. Carolyn came into the world with the start of a small library.
Today she will graduate high school. I woke up at 3 am, thinking of those books and teaching her to read them. Which of the books come to mind? Ferdinand the Bull, The Giving Tree, The Wind in the Willows, The Cat in The Hat, Guess How Much I Love You, Busy Busy Town. I started reading to her early; I read her James and the Giant Peach in utero.
One of the gifts was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. This started us reading all of the Eric Carle books. We loved his illustrations which were collages made from bright colored tissue papers. When Carolyn was about two, we also watched a video about how he became an artist. Carle mentioned the importance of having colorful paints as a child and lots of big white paper and free reign to create.
So, I made sure Carolyn had lots of finger-paints in bright colors. I set her up in her high chair with large white paper and let her go. With her bare little hands, she swirled the paints on the page, delighted with her pretty mess. Over time I wound up with a huge supply of these pages of looping, random colors. I couldn’t save all of them, and didn’t want them to go to waste.
I had an idea based on what Eric Carle did. I purposely gave Carolyn combinations of colors to create vibrant hues. Then, I cut the painted papers apart into shapes and used the pieces to make a picture. I made two designs this way: one of flowers and one of a parrot (with some help from my brother who was visiting). I made a few copies and turned them into greeting cards.
Thinking about that moment made me get out of bed. It suddenly became very important to me to find that parrot picture. I know I saved it. Where could it be?
I remembered a box in the storage room with the kids’ school stuff. To get to it, I’d have to move a heavy pile of over-size canvases — Carolyn’s high school artwork that she recently brought home to end the school year. I carefully put them aside. I hauled out a plastic box of scrapbooks underneath. No luck. Tucked behind that, I found an even heavier box of grade school papers and projects from her and her brother. Inside, I found the parrot in a file folder, like a time capsule, like proof of something.
So, I didn’t dream it. Once upon a time, I really did have a little girl.
I actually did teach her to read, and I actually did give her finger paints. And together we made something neat. She hung onto my neck and didn’t want to let go. That was real.
Now, letting go is all she wants to do. She is getting ready to go to college, funded largely by an art scholarship. She’s still a huge reader and that will serve her well no matter what else she studies. This, too, is real.
I am reminded of another children’s storybook. I don’t recall the name. It’s about a momma chicken. She teaches her chicks the number one rule is to stay away from water because it’s dangerous. But then one day one of her babies goes into the pond. The hen panics. She frantically, helplessly, runs up and down the shore, completely going chicken-mommy bonkers, “Bagok, bagok!” After a moment, she gets what the reader knows — her chick had come from a duck egg that had rolled into her nest. Unlike her, this baby was born to swim.
I got my camera, snapped a photo of the parrot. I put the parrot back into the folder, put the folder back into the box, and pushed the box back to its hiding place. I arranged the giant paintings Carolyn made this year on top of that. Then I dried my eyes and got ready for her big day.