Wednesday, August 9, 2017

When We Were Very Young

It’s the most special book in my collection of special books. The story of how it came to be so may not seem remarkable, and yet for me any reminder of it leaves me awash in feelings of being known and loved, of being intelligent and encouraged, of having choices and having those choices honoured. The story I attach to it might not even be accurate, but it is so much a part of my own mythology that no amount of reality would change the truth of it for me.

This is what I remember: when I was very young; well, more accurately now that I was six, my mom and I took a trip to the neighbouring “big town” from the bookless little hovel of a village we lived in. I wasn’t in school yet; having a January birthday meant I didn’t start school until I was 6 and a half. That last year at home was, in many ways, a long and lonely one. My sisters left early in the morning on a school bus that took an hour each way – most of the year they left in darkness and returned after dusk – and got home just in time for dinner, maybe an hour of play, and bedtime. My best friend Shiney who lived right next door had also started school. Her mom and I were equally lonely and often entertained each other, yet it remained a long and lonely year.

I remember playing school with my mom, as we had done since my middle sister started coming home and sharing her lessons with me. I read and drew and learned my letters and ate GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts). For mom I think it was a way to keep me quiet and contained for however long it worked. For me it was a chance to feel as big as my sisters and Shiney. I loved learning. I still do.

Then one day, probably not on my actual birthday but sometime near it, Mom and I took a trip. A road trip in winter in that region of the hinterland is always a risky business, so maybe we waited for spring, though I can’t imagine my birthday present being withheld that long, and when you live in those conditions you just deal with them. Maybe it was slightly before my birthday and the present got wrapped in shiny paper and given to me on time. Those details are sparse. What I do remember is the book. A real book. A big, hard-cover book with a shiny paper wrapper that I was to be very vary careful with. And a bear. An ultra-soft black and white bear with shiny eyes and a felt tongue sticking out.

I still have that bear in a box in storage. For decades he has had only the tiny remains of a tongue. Until I was married I slept with him every night. His stomach carries the brown reminder of my pubescent growth spurt when my nose bled almost nightly. Most of the blood was cleaned up; only a spot remains. For some reason I remember choosing him from the dingy department store of that slushy town. He is and was a very special bear. 

And he was a two-part present, since I also got a magical book – The World of Christopher Robin, 1958 edition, by A.A. Milne with original AND new illustrations by E.H. Shepard. I might have seen some of the stories on The World of Disney, before they were Disneyfied (by which I will always mean ruined). I’m not sure how I knew I wanted it. It isn’t even the stories – The World of Christopher Robin is the poem collections “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We Are Six.” There’s very little of Christopher’s animal friends in it. But I don't know if I've ever had a better present.

Post dust-cover
I also don’t know how a not-very careful little girl took such good care of it. The dust cover had only a slight tear in it until a pet rabbit got at it a few years ago. The book itself is still spotless. And there are so many of the poems that I still remember at least parts of by heart:  Vesper, King John’s Christmas, The Dormouse and the Doctor, Buckingham Palace … .

This morning I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie “Goodbye,Christopher Robin.” It purports to be the story behind the story, and in just the trailer I was reminded of the poems:  a little boy bows his little golden head in prayer and Vespers echos “hush, hush whisper who dares, Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” The poem took on even more meaning for me when I had my own little golden haired boys. I haven’t lined up for a movie on opening night in years, but I anticipate doing it for this one. I anticipate being rapt with nostalgia. I anticipate happy tears. 
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