"The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day."
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
At breakfast recently, my six-year-old son placed his soft little hand on mine. He leaned in close and quietly confided to me that he has "tons" of books at his dad's house, but "we don't read very much there." This was not a new discovery to me—neither the part about not reading at his father's house, nor the part about having tons of books. A very successful farmer, my ex-husband never tried to hide the fact that he didn't like to read anything other than farm journals and owner's manuals for tractors. When we were together as a family, I was the caretaker of the books. I selected and purchased them as gifts for our children on holidays. I made homes for them. And I did 98 percent of the reading. Our kids always had far too many books—I am not at all ashamed to admit it. That's why it seems so strange that I only brought ten of the children's books with us when we moved out.
"In the middle of the night, Miss Clavel turned on her light and said, 'Something is not right.'"
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
During our marriage, we lived on his family's farm, in the home in which my ex-husband had lived his entire life. When it became clear that our marriage was ending and the time came for someone to leave, he declared that it had to be me and the kids. I did not argue. With the crippling weight of grief on my shoulders, I began the excruciating process of deciding what to take with us. I was determined not to dismantle what had always been my children's home any more than absolutely necessary. That meant taking the significant and sentimental things that comforted me, but leaving as much as possible to comfort them. I did not simply forget the children's books. On the contrary, I thought long and hard about what to do with them. Then I consciously left most of them behind. I wish I could say I had a meaningful method for selecting the ten we took. In truth, it was more carnal than rational. I picked books that unfailingly made us feel good; books with words so familiar we could recite them, or rhymes that were rhythmically upbeat; books that my children requested time and again because they were rituals as much as they were books.
I left pictures on the wall; I left toys with which the children regularly played, even the ones that had been mine as a child; I left the dining room table I had designed with an Amish carpenter for our first wedding anniversary; I left bedroom furniture that my family had given the children; and yes—I left the books.
"There's only one way in the whole wide world to save a red, ripe strawberry from the big, hungry Bear!"
The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood
These weren't just books though. They were treasures I had lovingly hand-picked and inscribed with wishes that I imagined showing to my grandchildren someday as we read together. "To Emerson on your third birthday, with love from Mommy and Daddy." "To Isaac on your first Christmas. We love you!!" I left the books and left what felt like little pieces of myself. I don't know what made this feel safe. Was it denial of the permanency of the separation? Or certainty that I would be able to return for them? It doesn't matter, because hearts became bitter, and lines were drawn, and now it is very clear that I will never see those books again.
"I love you right up to the moon—and back."
Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
Books and reading are intricately woven into the fabric of our family life. Our nightly ritual of reading together is an anchor of our routine. We read. And read. And read. Back when my son was a toddler, we surveyed his bookshelves every night for two or three or four (whatever the negotiated number) selections to read before eyelids got heavy and lights were turned off. Sometimes, in search of the one book that his little heart needed to hear, my son would pull every book off of a shelf, leaving a small mountain there on the bedroom floor. I would pick them up sometime the next day and return them to their shelves, all the while muttering about "so many books" and "not enough shelf space" and "have to start making him put these back himself." The truth is, I would gladly pick up books every day for the rest of my life rather than give up those moments spent reading with him.
"Well, I saw an ant on the railroad track. The rail was bright. The ant was black. He was walking along, tickety-tack. (That's the sound of an ant on the railroad track.)"
I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Track by Joshua Prince
When the books became too numerous and the shelves filled to overflowing, the kids and I would painstakingly sort them. We examined each book, deciding which ones were ready to be donated to the public library and "shared with our neighbors and friends." I cherished those sorting days, partially for the obvious reason—making room for more books!—and partially for the less obvious: seeing undeniable proof, as my children handled each book like it were an old friend, that they had inherited my innate love of literature. Small hands would brush over each cover, as if by doing so they might touch and feel the characters and scenes of the beloved stories within. It was hard to say goodbye, but we comforted ourselves with the fact that our books would be waiting for us at the library when we wanted to visit them again.
"He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion."
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
When she was in the first grade, my daughter established her own library, complete with card catalog and shelving system. There were designated spots for an assortment of genres and subjects: history books, space and planet books, books of poetry, Bible stories, tractor and farm-themed books, and series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and The Chronicles of Narnia. One bookshelf became two, and then three as her library expanded. Each family member was issued a "library card" which allowed us to "check out" books and read them, as long as we presented a verbal book report when we returned them. Even then, she obviously understood: books are meant to be shared.
"If only Madame SoSo had looked behind the curtain even once during her practice, she would have realized that Alma was no ordinary cat."
Opera Cat by Tess Weaver
"On an island in the ocean, near the land of Singapore, midst a storm of great proportion, fifteen cats were washed ashore."
Castaway Cats by Lisa Wheeler
At about the same time that her library was founded, I began reading the Harry Potter series out loud to my daughter at bedtime. It was my first time reading those books, so we got lost in the wonder together. Every night, snuggled up in her bed, we would travel to Hogwarts and join the adventure with Harry and Ron and Hermione and Hagrid. I used distinct voices for each character and tried to paint vocally the fantastic, vivid mental images the books conjured for me. We devoured those novels, one after the other. Some nights, as one chapter turned into three or four chapters, we read until her dad scolded both of us into closing the book and turning off the light. It was such a special time for me—for us. Pure magic.
"The wand chooses the wizard, remember . . ."
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Since books had always been a part of our life together, when we moved out and the children's lives were torn apart, I suppose I believed that in leaving their books, in leaving that part of their life in place, I would somehow make it easier for my children to accept the idea that their mother no longer lived with their father. Even though their home was forever changed, they could still look over at those books as they climbed into bed at his house and remember how things were when all of us were a family under one roof.
I had hoped that the books I left behind would be a link to the past for my kids. Instead, the ten books we took with us would prove to be lights illuminating the path to our new normal. As one household became two, there was a necessary process of redefinition. We shed the things that were no longer meaningful or useful and clung to the things that comforted and steadied us. Even though we only had ten books in our new home, we continued to read every night. It made us feel like us. We bought new bookshelves and put those ten books in their proper place. We seized opportunities to visit bookstores and add to our collection. We made weekly visits to the library to add variety and to visit those old friends that we had donated in the past—and we still do. All of this serves to reassure me. Although life as it used to be was shattered, we have picked up the pieces and are making something new and meaningful again. Looking back, I regret leaving those special books behind. I ache when I think about them sitting untouched on the shelves these days. But that regret is seasoned with hope and the reassurance that we are growing our new library in our new home. We are rebuilding, and together, we are finding our way.
"Stellaluna was afraid, but she let go of the tree and dropped into the deep blue sky."
Stellaluna by Janell Cannon