I breathe in the smell of Johnson’s baby shampoo as my daughter presses back against me in the rocker. Chubby fingers hold tight to her favorite blankie, thumb tucked tight between her lips.
“Mommy read,” she lisps around the thumb. She resumes sucking.
I lean us both sideways toward the basket on the floor next to the rocker and pull out a board book. “Goodnight Moon.”
With one arm propped against the rocker, toddler snuggled in tight; I flip open the book’s stiff cover and begin to read.
The sucking slows as my daughter takes in the familiar words in the quiet of this dimly lit bedroom.
Swaying chair, warm child, soothing words. All is right. The tantrums and spilled Cheerios from the day fade away. It is just us and the story.
“Goodnight Moon” with its green room and the picture of a cow jumping over the moon fills that space. Mama and Baby Bunny’s goodnight wishes to the occupants of the room become our own wishes, child and I. By the time the story finishes, we are ready for our own good nights.
Some evenings “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” inspires a rhythm and I match the cadence of rocker to words: “one thumb, one thumb, drumming on a drum.” Back and forth, back and forth. First quickly and then slowing to a sleepy halt with the final “dum, ditty, dum, ditty, dum… dum… dum.”
On other occasions the hapless lambs and their vehicle in “Sheep in a Jeep” jiggle us with giggles. “Sheep cheer. Driver sheep forgets to steer.”
These rhymes and tales of my daughters’ childhoods serve as anchors in our day. With each of my three girls I repeat the ritual of story before bedtime. I savor the sweet smells, the gentle rocking motion, the piping in of a high-pitched voice to repeat remembered words as they “read” along with me.
“Good night cow jumping over the moon!”
We pause in the same spots. Laugh at the expected points in the narrative. Sigh with contentment over Big Nutbrown Hare in “Guess How Much I Love You” who, like me, loves his Little Nutbrown Hare to the moon and back.
Then as toddlers become preschoolers, who become grade-schoolers, “Green Eggs and Ham” replaces “Guess How Much I Love You” before yielding to American Girl books. Cozy read-alouds are traded for assigned alone reading time. The ritual shifts. Now as bedtime approaches we each absorb different books, my girls stretched on a couch or across the floor, me alone in the rocker beside our fireplace.
I am glad to have passed along a love for literature. But I miss the intimate space carved by my voice pouring out words into the air around us.
Then one day my eldest comes to me, eyes weary with pain, lips pursed, and asks in the same tone from toddlerhood, “Mommy, will you read to me?”
She is not allowed to read to herself.
During a high school soccer game a hit to the head results in a headache that refuses to subside. Diagnosis? Concussion. A week passes with her confined to a quiet room in darkness. No school. No soccer. No screens. And the final denial: no reading.
One week turns into two, then three. Pain and boredom send her to me.
She doesn’t ask for “Goodnight Moon.” Nor “Sheep in a Jeep.” She asks for Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” another favorite of mine. “For English class,” she says.
And so again I read, night after headache-filled night.
We don’t sit in the rocker. The blankie is a faint memory. And the thumb, thankfully, is out of her mouth when I climb up beside her on her bed. Instead she pulls a fluffy comforter up under her chin, quickly swiping a stuffed Piglet under with her. I smile at this vestige of childhood, and then put on the reading glasses now necessary for tiny print to yield words.
I flip pages, taking a whiff of Suave shampoo drifting from long, damp, teenaged hair before I continue where we left off the previous night. Our dog nudges at my elbow and I absentmindedly stroke him as I read.
This is no childhood rhyme, but the effect is the same. I read Gladwell’s words,
“We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.”
The tension in my shoulders gives way as I surrender to the ritual. No worries about missed school and MRIs, headaches and brain fog. No clenched jaw wondering how much longer my daughter’s pain will last. It is just the story, and us as it was before. We are safe.
Lara Krupicka is a parenting journalist, mother of three and avid reader. Some of her favorite times with her family are when they gather together to read.