It was nearly Tu Bishvat, which means that we were back to reading The Giving Tree. I read the book to one child last night while the older three kids were at swimming lessons, and once again I burst into tears. This time I cried even before the boy starts to lose his hair, when he cuts down the tree’s trunk to build a boat and sail away, and the tree is happy – but not really. My daughter looked at me earnestly, batting her eyelashes fast and furiously to take it all in: “Ima, why are you crying?” Except that it sounded like “cying,” because she omits the r in most consonant clusters. And that unleashed another wave of tears, because I was crying not just for the tree, but for the day when she would stop dropping her r’s and start speaking properly. After that, I was sure, it would not be long before she built a boat and sailed away, and I’d be the one who was happy – but not really.
There are certain books that inevitably unleash the floodgates. My kids know, for instance, that whenever I read them Sunrise, Sunset (a pictorial adaptation of the Fiddler on the Roof song), I will fall apart before we turn the last page, when Tevye becomes a grandfather. And perhaps they suspect that the one page that has no words in Before You Were Born — the story of a father explaining to his daughter what happened to her when she was in her mother’s womb — is there so as to give Ima time to dry her eyes. (It is one of the most eloquent caesuras I’ve encountered in a picture book.) All of these books are about the passage of time and about moments that are impossible to recapture fully, and as I read them I cannot help but imagine my own children growing older and setting sail.
The Talmud in Hagiga (4b) tells the story of various rabbis who would burst into tears while reading. Each rabbi had a particular biblical verse that set him off: Rav Yosef would cry when he read a verse in Proverbs about those who die without justice; Rabbi Ami would cry when he read about God’s wrath; Rabbi Elazar was moved to tears by Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. This discussion is immediately followed by a story about Rabbi Yohanan, who once saw a man picking unripe figs and leaving the ripe ones, and was reminded of how God sometimes takes people from the world before their time. The juxtaposition of the two passages suggests that when we are moved to tears by what we are reading, it is often because we are reminded of life’s transience. It is the same reason that Rabbi Elazar wept on his sickbed when he saw Rabbi Yohanan’s magnificent exposed arm: “I am crying for this beauty that will ravage to dust” (Berakhot 5b). We cry because time passes but it does not pass us by; it sweeps us along so that we can remember the past and anticipate the future, but all that surrounds us is the whirl of the current.
A mother of older children once told me that any time my children ask me to play with them, I should say yes, because before I know it, the time will come when they will not want to play with me anymore. “It goes by so fast,” everyone tells me, even though Dara Horn questions this assumption in her brilliant novel Eternal Life — how can it possibly go by so fast when you are changing diapers for seven years straight. And yet I have so many moments when I feel time slipping away from me. I will be reading a book when suddenly I am reminded of when I read that book for the first time, to a baby too young even to turn the pages – and I will think about how that baby is now in the other room practicing violin and trying to get out of doing his math homework. So I come to the last page, close the book, and then immediately open it again from the beginning, wishing I could do the same with time.
Now my youngest is about to turn three and when we go to the library, we rarely take out picture books anymore. The older kids are still not able to read on their own, but they want me to read aloud to them from All of a Kind Family and Cam Jansen and other chapter books. We’ve read the first four All of a Kind Family books but I’ve been holding off on the fifth, where Ella is offered a career in vaudeville and doesn’t know if she should leave her beloved fiancé Jules, who has just returned from World War I. When we first started reading the series, Ella was only 12 and was the oldest of her siblings, whose adventures included losing library books, buying penny candy, and keeping their baby brother Charlie out of trouble. I’m not sure my girls are ready for fiances and vaudeville, and so for the time being I’ve been freezing the Kind Family (as my kids call them) in time, their ages fixed at the end of the fourth volume. Sometimes I wish I could do the same with my own children.
The other series they love, Cam Jansen, is about a girl who has a photographic memory; when she closes her eyes and says, “Click,” she can store a perfect image of whatever she has just seen. One of my daughters likes to imitate Cam, and every so often she will close her eyes, say “Click,” and ask me to quiz her on what she has just seen and stored in her memory. I get it. When all of us are piled up on her trundle bed to read in pajamas, the toddler in my lap, the twins on each of my sides, and my son climbing over his sisters, I sometimes wish I could stop for a moment to close my eyes and say “Click.”