Sunday, February 2, 2014

Revisiting the Books We Loved

by Ellen Dulsky Watkins)

Childhood has a funny way of following us around. But it's not just the neuroses and nicknames and shuddering, ever so slightly, at the sight of crust on a sandwich. Revisiting the games we played and the teenage heartthrobs we crushed on can pull even the most evolved of grown-ups into a moment of nostalgic reverie -- or even, in the case of a favorite children's book, one of realization. Maybe some Pokémon cards and Kit Kat Bars mean nothing. But some relics mean the world, and others, like my well-loved books, created one.

Turning the pages of an old and adored book allows me a wistful glimpse of my less-than-a-decade old mind. As I crack the dusty spine and reread familiar sentences, I recall what enchanted me as a child. More often than not, the things I remember most vividly from these tales are the things I continue to love as an adult: art, clothes, and dogs wearing clothes. I don't need to look further than the loving descriptions of muslin work dresses in Little House on the Prairie (which I have nearly memorized) to realize that my taste in divertissements has remained static since age six.

But what else can these little tomes do? A number of books, scenes, and heroines can take us back in time, but a select few seem, ever so slightly, to inform our lives in their entirety. They are more than vehicles for reminiscing; in fact, they can take a lifetime to decode.

These books stick with us and we, subliminally, with them. Perhaps the title itself is forgotten, or the name of the author confused. But the messages they slipped us persist, whether they are words of inspiration, comfort, or warning. As Mary Poppins left her charges for the last time, we learned that time is fleeting -- we have to abandon fantasy and grow up. We also learned how to avoid getting our ears boxed.

These are not just the books quoted during commencement addresses; they don't have to be classics. Still, Oh, the Places You'll Go! or Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius may well be your personal bible. As Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, described the latter in a recent commencement speech: "In a wholly unassuming way, [it] lays out a plausible -- and a beautiful -- dream for women." I get it -- I, too, long to travel the world, live by the ocean, and, ultimately, make the world a more beautiful place.

My well-worn book is not Miss Rumphius, but a different story by the same author: Hattie and the Wild Waves. In this slight, beautifully illustrated volume, I find a key piece of my adult life. Amidst the descriptions and illustrations of places and objects I continue to obsess over -- hoop skirts! The ocean! More art! -- lies a quiet charge to toss out the expectations placed upon me.

On the surface, Hattie, the protagonist, and I don't have a lot in common: I wasn't born in the pre-computer era, I am not the heiress of a woodworking fortune, and I have no interest in becoming a painter. But like Hattie, I want to forge my own path in life, one distinct from the rest of my family. She and I share a fierce independence, a desire to explore a profession for the sake of joy. We crave fulfillment, and we'll take risks -- personal and creative -- to find it. Hattie didn't make me this way, but she helped me see the value in my search for self-determination. No matter how deeply the story is buried in my brain, or how jumbled it is with every other thought and value I possess, Hattie and the Wild Waves is a part of my world.

So let's not forget the books we loved. They might just hold the missing piece to our happiness, the explanation for our ennui, or the rationale for our fear of mushrooms. They might have the capacity to explain some small part of the way we build our lives.

Am I reading into it too much? Maybe, but I loved wordplay then and I love wordplay now, and Amelia Bedelia is chock full of it.