My husband Bo still revels in the moment he first introduced The Three Stooges to our daughter Blondie. All it takes is the butler to inform his rich masters that “I’ve hired three new plumbers, so everything’s going to be fine,” and the two are kicking up on the couch giggling like ninnies.
I have yet to revel in any such moment, and honestly, I’m getting pretty impatient. Baby Blondie latched onto the theme of Dragnet, one of Bo’s favorite shows. If you don’t know the song, it is approximately twenty seconds long and uses maybe six different notes. I had to sing that melody for the sake of quiet as we drove from Fargo to Bismarck to visit my parents. That drive lasts three hours. A twenty-second song. For three. Hours.
Wee Biff and Bash’s tastes demanded more sophisticated fare. Only “Bonanza” could get those babies to stop crying AND smile, even laugh the newborn laugh that spins the heart round and makes me dizzy and gooey all at once. Bo again.
“They’re never like this with any shows I liked when I was a kid.”
“Sorry, dear, but the theme to Murder, She Wrote just isn’t that catchy.”
“Is so!” I hum it. Nuthin’. “Okay. But they’re never like this with any music I like, either.”
Bo rolls his eyes as he bounces Biff and Bash on each knee. Blondie gallops around singing “Bonanza” notes at the top of her lungs. “The theme from Hunt for Red October is not exactly what I call bouncy.”
I take a crack at the melody, but Blondie drowns me out.
How does one compete with a child’s joy of exploring new worlds? Of transporting characters out of their stories and into your own? The only way to enter a child’s creative universe is to take joy in the act of creativity with her. My father understood, a man who loved to write hymns and poetry. We could sit together for ages in front of his ancient IBM staring at that nauseating blue screen. It didn’t matter. We were in my story, and we were exploring it together.
Mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, enter my world. Not real, you see. For a woman who taught elementary school, she did not see a need for all that imagination once puberty came along. Time for functional attire, plans for the future, arranged social gatherings with classmates who of course are your friends, you are the pastor’s daughter, when in reality they were decent enough but didn’t want to know me at all because I was the pastor’s daughter. Only when I turned 14 and entered a boarding school did I finally find others my age who enjoyed creativity as much as me. By then, the disconnect with Mother was complete, and the pressures of church business meant Father no longer had time to visit my story-worlds.
Now I am the one struggling with a disconnect I never thought would repeat.
Blondie peers into the living room from the hallway. She refuses to let both eyes round the corner. “Mommy, what are you watching?”
I bend over and speak with all the eagerness of a Sesame Street Muppet. “It’s a story called The Hobbit. It’s about adventure and fighting an evil dragon and bad goblins and finding treasure!”
“Mom I don’t like this.” She keeps her voice as small as possible so I’m not allowed to stand up straight.
Biff and Bash run into the room from their naps. Bash takes one look at the 1970s animation and sits with his back to the screen to read about helicopters. Biff stands fully in the room, eyes set on the story.
“Mommy I don’t like this,” Blondie repeats and presses her face into my stomach. “Please turn it off.”
John Huston’s Gandalf has only just introduced himself.
“Just give it a chance, kiddo. It’s one of Mommy’s favorite stories when she was your size. Time for a song!”
The greatest adventure is what lies ahead
“Is it done yet?”
Bash puts down his book and watches the dwarves leave Hobbiton, then returns to helicopters. Biff remains silent and studious.
At the moment Biff is still unclaimed territory. Bash has taken his own path, obsessing over all things helicopter. Blondie enjoys a mix of fairies, ponies, trains, and Stooges. But Biff only notes these things politely before settling down to a book or a box of cars. His love for reading makes me hope that perhaps I can finally imprint my childhood loves on my own spawn. 1 out of 3 ain’t bad.
Blondie goes to her room and closes the door. Biff leaves the movie and comes by me. “Mommy!” His voice is a tiny version of Don Corleone’s. “What are you doing here?” I turn him back to the film. He leaves the room to find the car box. Bash follows with two helicopters. Thorin and Company’s adventure ends before they reach Rivendell.
I come upstairs from teaching online to rip-roarin’ laughter. Biff jumps and wobbles the toddler dance while his eyes remain locked onto the screen.
Just two good ol’ boys…never meanin’ no harm
Bash and Blondie are laughing so hard their voices cut in and out as the General Lee jumps yet again and somehow sends Roscoe P. Coltrane into one of Hazzard County’s many rivers with a bridge missing.
“Mommy, Mommy, look, Mommy! It’s the Zero One Car!” Biff hollers.
“Just two good ol’ boys…” Blondie laugh-sings and stops, not knowing the other words. Yet.
Bash laughs. “Weeehoo! Woah! Yahoo!” He nearly falls off the couch.
Bo gives me his happy smile. He’s won again.
“Dukes of Hazzard now?”
“Not just.” Bo holds up season one of Airwolf. Bash spots it before I even notice the “HELICOPTER!” on the case.
I resign myself to the rocking chair in the corner. Biff is officially claimed. All of them love what their father loves. Bo was so nervous when Blondie and the boys were born, scared to death he’d never relate to the kids. Now he’s found a way to connect, even if it is over old television shows. That should be a good thing. But this good thing was also a competition, undeclared and cut-throat. I’ve lost completely.
Bo knows my face. “JB Fletcher doesn’t do car chases.”
I smirk. “JB Fletcher’s life is plenty exciting with all sorts of coincidental intrigue thanks to her dozens of nieces and nephews and old school mates being set up for murder once a week.”
“Muuuurdeeer!” Biff picks up on the only word not good for a toddler to say in public and turns it into a car sound. “Look Mommy look!” He climbs onto my lap. “Mommy, I am soooooooooo proud of you.” And he pats me not-so-lightly on the cheeks. “Oooh, a hug.” And he leans against my chest, expecting his hug.
I hold Biff, once my last hope. I absently wipe the tears dripping from my eyes onto his hair and watch Blondie and Bash race down the hallway, grabbing each other from behind, pulling each other down, and then running up the hallway to start again. “Bash, Bash I’m Roscoe, and you’re those Duke boys! I’m going to get you!”
Bo turns off the television and hands me Oh the Thinks You Can Think. “You know, some of us didn’t have imagination when we were kids. All we had were car chases and middle-aged men performing slapstick.”
“That’s kinda sad, Bo.”
Bo plops Bash into my lap; Blondie balances on the armrest. I have to weave my arms through wriggling bodies in order to hold the book. “It is. But look at me now—a functioning member of society.”
“Uh huh. ‘You can think about red you can think about pink—’”
“You’re not your mom.”
I pause. Bo looks down at me. He is, for once, completely serious.
I finish the story. “Neeeew book!” Each child says in turn as they slide off the chair and plow each other over in a mad dash for the book shelf. Bash gives up and grabs some superheroes. “Hello, Superman. Hello, Batman,” Bash says in his best Super Friends narrator. “Wait for me, Batman!” He has different voices for each hero. Biff finds a book on trucks and rattles off nearly every letter on the page before going back to point at the words he knows. Blondie locates her Tinker Bell book and starts speaking for the fairies in the pictures. Just when I think they’ve given up on story time, each runs at me with a different book and hurls themselves onto my lap.
All three have kicked their blankets off. I walk into the dark and watch Bash’s fingers finally give way on his helicopter book. I move the tiny General Lee away from Biff’s ear. Blondie’s buried her head in ponies—heaven help the person who tries to move them. Each has found a thing on which to fixate their final waking moments of the day. Do their dreams ever revisit the music and worlds that I share? Or are they surrounded by wall or water, a secret to be discovered when their imaginations are ready to create magical realms of their own?
Blankets and kisses, I step out.
Bo waits until I close the door before whispering, “Be sure to ask Blondie about the running policeman tomorrow.”
“T.J. Hooker, baby.”
If anyone knows of a lovely storybook version of The Hobbit, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please.