Credit, says Beatrix Potter, is when you make a low bow and say “’With pleasure, madam,’ and it is written down in a book.’” Ginger and Pickles gave credit to their customers, the mice and rabbits. They did ten times as much business as Tabitha Twitchit, the only other shopkeeper in the village, but they were never paid and had to eat the goods they were meant to sell and eventually close their shop. Tabitha Twitchit promptly raised her prices, of course. And she did not give credit.
|Meg in Beatrix Potter's doorway|
Like a million dads before me, I was seduced by the intimacy of a child snuggled on my lap, giggling brightly at poor, fussy Mrs. Tittlemouse as she swept her soft sandy floors for her party, exclaiming along with her, “I will not have Mr. Jackson; he never wipes his feet.” And I declaring, in my best impression of Mr. Jackson, “Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! No teeth, no teeth, no teeth!” (he was a toad, after all), as that sweet little face lifted up to mine and brightened with delight.
Before long I began making up my own stories for my children. Somehow even the most fatuous tale, when dramatized with absurd character voices, broad hand gestures and silly faces, transported us to some place where neither of us could have gone without the other, a magic land where we were, for those moments, the only two people in the world, our minds locked together by the story, each completely open to the other, without hesitation or reservation.
How often does that happen with a child? With anyone? That is the power of stories, and for teaching me to tell them I give thanks and credit, with a low bow, to Beatrix Potter.
The stories I improvised were all about wanting something: the caterpillar who wanted to be a bird (and sort of got his wish); the little mouse who wanted to be friends with the chipmunks (but who made a better friend instead). Hopelessly derivative and corny you say. You’ve got me there, but my kids didn’t know that; they thought they were brilliant and funny and tragic and heartwarming.
|"My Brother, the Devil, and the Rabbit Feet,"|
illustrated by my daughter, Ashley
Honestly, telling stories to children is a drug. When you take a hit, sitting at their bedside in the soft light, with the house quiet, the night black, you might as well be in an opium den. For the little ones, though, it’s a gateway drug. Pretty soon they want more sophisticated fare, and they start wanting to read themselves, and of course you want that for them too---and that is the beginning of the end.
When my youngest started weaning me from the pipe, I took some of my stories into his kindergarten class and read to them. Oh, mercy, what a thrill. All those little bright eager faces. At that point, I knew I wanted to keep doing that. Not reading to kindergarten classes, but telling stories: to children, to teenagers, to adults, to anyone who would listen.
Why is that, do you think? Is it narcissism? A naked desire to be the center of attention? Perhaps. But it seems to me there is something more at work here, something of which Charles Darwin, a pretty good storyteller himself, would approve.
Stories are the best way we have to tell each other about ourselves. About who we are. About what we value. What we will permit, and what we will not. They speak across cultures to lessen the fear that we are different from one another. If we like the same stories, how much of a threat can we be?
Those first stories I told my children connected me to them in ways little else has. That is why I write them still, searching for those connections, hoping to reach a broader audience than will fit on my lap. This is how we are, I want to say. This is how we think. This is how we live together.
Mr. Jackson smelled the honey at Mrs. Tittlemouse’s party and came up from his dirty wet ditch uninvited. She had made the front door too small for him to fit through, but she “handed him out acorn-cupfuls of honeydew through the window, and he was not at all offended. He sat outside in the sun, and said---‘Tiddly, widdly, widdly! Your very good health, Mrs. Tittlemouse!’”