Quality Time with Dad
June 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
Last June, on the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, I wrote a post about a picture book titled Following Papa’s Song, a beautiful metaphor for the delicate dance that we perform with our children, of when and how to let go (and pull back, and let go again), so that our children might grow up to be their own persons. This year, I was all set to write about David Ezra Stein’s Tad and Dad, which brings a more rambunctious and funny treatment to a similar discussion of boundaries: a toddler frog is so enamored with his Dad—the very best swimmer and hopper and burpper in THE WORLD—that, naturally, he wants to sleep in the same bed as said Dad every night.
Then yesterday, when I arrived home, I found on my doorstep Ask Me (Ages 3-6), an upcoming new picture book by the late Bernard Waber (sadly, not coming out until next month, so think of it as an all-year-round read and not as a Father’s Day gift, per se). Everything changed when I read that book. There was no going back. It’s not just because I grew up with and adore Waber’s classics (in fact, our Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile treasury happens to be my son’s go-to reading material when he’s trying to distract himself during a thunderstorm). It’s not just because the pencil illustrations are by the amazing Suzy Lee, who blends her South Korean sensibility with English training (and we know how I swoon over British and Asian illustrators). And it’s not just that the cover features a little girl skipping alongside her father, her hand clasped firmly in his, a smile on both of their faces, as if there is no other place they’d rather be.
What really hit home about this simple, poetic, and stunning picture book is that it speaks to the greatest gift my Dad gave me when he was alive. He listened. He listened to everything I told him—and I told him A LOT. As a child, I would save up everything that happened to me during the day (including the plot of whatever book I was reading); and then, when Dad got home, I would relay it all to him, including every single mind-numbing detail (I add the “mind-numbing” part all these years later, since as a parent myself, I have SEEN THE LIGHT). I would sit on the window ledge on our second floor landing, overlooking the driveway, and strain to see his car lights. All the while, the words would be collecting in my mouth, burning on my tongue, jittery with excitement at the prospect of spilling out.
(It is perhaps the greatest testament to his character that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I even considered whether he was as fascinated by these largely one-way conversations as he always seemed at the time.)
As a child, if I had a thought, I thought only of sharing it with my Dad. As if any thought wasn’t entirely real until I spoke it aloud—until it had been listened to with the greatest patience, the softest expression, the keenest interest.
Much like the father and daughter in the book, we walked. And walked. And walked. On the weekends, we’d stroll down the street, stopping to pick up chestnuts, stopping for ice cream at the pavilion in the middle of the park, stopping to study the cloud shapes in the sky. Me always talking. He always listening.
The entire text of Ask Me consists of a dialogue between a girl and her father, over the course of a single (presumably) weekend day together. There are no quotation marks. What the girl says—inquisitive, insistent, vulnerable—is in black; and how the father responds—deliberate, bemused, attentive—is in blue. (Do I have to tell you that the instances of black far out number the blue?)
It is impossible not to hear my own children’s voices in the girl’s almost stream-of-consciousness chattering. No clean or predictable transition from one subject to the next. Saying whatever thought pops into their heads. Asking questions and then going straight on to give the answers themselves. Struggling to choose the right words: qualifying, changing their minds, emphasizing.
Ask me what else I like.
What else do you like?
I like horses. No, I like riding horses.
You rode a horse?
On the merry-go-round. Remember? You remember.
The father and daughter spend most of the book walking around their neighborhood, exploring playgrounds, fountains, and forests. (Incidentally, this is all thanks to illustrator Suzy Lee’s unique interpretation of Waber’s purposely vague text, which could take place just about anywhere—or even, for that matter, between a girl (or boy) and her (his) mother.) The season is fall, and there is natural beauty to behold everywhere. And yet, the girl is as much in her own imagination as she is in the present. I like sand. I like digging in the sand. I really, really do like digging in the sand. Deep, deep, down, down, down in the sand. And I like seashells. Remember when we collected seashells?
Then, there are times when the girl pauses. When she wants to be the one to listen. When she desires, longs, needs to hear certain things. How come birds build nests? she asks. And her father, accustomed to this game, at first echoes, How come birds build nests? Only this time, the girl breaks her customary pattern. You tell it, she says. And so her father does:
So they will have a safe place to lay their eggs.
I knew that.
Why did you ask?
Because I like to hear you tell it.
Later, as the girl and her father get ready for bed, brushing their teeth side by side, the girl asks her father if he remembers the significance of next Thursday. His responds:
How could I ever forget?
Forget my birthday.
Not in a million years would I forget your birthday.
How about a billion years?
Not even in a billion years.
As children, especially during one-on-one time with the people we love, we have a brief opportunity to feel like Masters of the Universe. We stroll confidently through a carpet of leaves, we twirl beneath the rain, and we feel like the words we say must unquestionably be the Most Important Words Ever.
But only because someone is listening.
As we grow up, we no longer speak our every thought aloud (at least, not to our parents). But, if we are lucky, we still have a parent to call with the most exciting words, or the most disappointing words, or the words that we just can’t get right in our heads. Listening is a gift we give our children. And it’s a gift they never stop needing, even when they’re no longer so little.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.
Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!