Over the course of a long legal career, my father amassed a great number of plaques that once decorated the walls of his judicial chambers. They are too sentimental to part with, but also too numerous to properly display.
My wonderfully organized friend, Tracey, suggested I use them as lapdesks for the children to assist them with their school work. They are exceedingly sturdy, perfectly smooth and have a taut string on the back perfect for holding papers and pens. My father--scholar that he was--would approve!
Years upon years ago (OK, roughly a dozen), my husband and I were looking for our first home. We were expecting our third child (now twelve-year-old Margaret), and our young family was bursting out of the one-bedroom apartment that had made such a perfect honeymoon suite. All through the weary winter, we scoured real estate ads and pounded the pavement, hoping to find a house in time for the new baby's birth.
Then one day, we toured a certain tidy colonial on a postage-stamp lot in a nice neighborhood. The house had nothing in particular to recommend it--it was neither beautiful, nor ugly--and, to tell the truth, I was not especially interested in it. That is until we entered the last of three bedrooms. The walls were an appalling shade of crayon green--you could not even pretend that it was something pretty like Kelly or Chartreuse--and the floors were a deep dark red. Anyone else would have backed quietly down the stairs never to return again, but I--young mother that I was--could only stand on the threshold to that room and sigh, "In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon."
Suddenly, my dreams of a pink frilly bedroom for the girls departed with a "goodnight room," and I imagined myself in a rocking chair, the quiet (young) lady whispering hush. The room we would have and all its appointments were already etched in my mind from a thousand bedtime readings--bears, chairs, kittens, mittens, clocks, socks, house, mouse. In less than a week's time we were sitting at our lawyer's kitchen getting ready to sign a contract, not on a house really, but on our own personal setting of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown.
I do not even remember a single other thing about that house we almost bought in back in 1997. Just as we were about to sign on the dotted line, I felt a wave of indecisiveness. Our lawyer sent my young husband and me to a diner to talk it over, and two cups of coffee later, we phoned him to say we would keep looking. My husband promised that if ever we did find a house we wanted to buy, he would give me carte blanche to paint the girls' bedroom in any garish colors I liked.
It is funny to think how nearly that simple picture book came to charting one of the earliest courses in our lives. Literature has a way of affecting us deeply, but perhaps not so demonstrably as that.
Goodnight Moon was not a book I ever recall reading as a child, and, to be honest, the first time I thumbed through it, I could not for the life of me understand why it had such a following. But anyone who has ever read the book to a child knows that Goodnight Moon is like a battered lamp lying forgotten in a cave. It goes unnoticed until some childish Aladdin sits by your side, rubbing the lamp by way of his rapt expression as you read, "Good night light and the red balloon"--words that seem mundane without him there to show you otherwise.
Not far from where we live on Long Island, there is a cozy little restaurant with paneled walls and horse finials standing guard over each booth. Until becoming a regular there and reading a newspaper feature framed on the wall, I did not know that Margaret Wise Brown was a Long Islander and that she enjoyed fox hunting on foot--or, more accurately rabbit hunting--not far from where we live. Sometimes, I like to imagine the rolling hills, the blare of horns, and the yip of dogs so different from Long Island today. (Might some hidden hollow of rabbit kits sniffed out by her eager hounds have inspired "the great green room"?) Margaret Wise Brown looks radiant in the photo, and I love that her two male companions are drinking tea from cups and saucers. Perhaps one of them was her fiance, a Rockefeller no less.
As you can see from the blurb about her life, she died tragically and young--actually at the very same age I am now. She never did get to marry that fiance--or see the books she had written brought to life by the rapt expression of a child of her own. From now on, when we read her book--especially when we read it before bed--we will say a prayer that she rests in peace.
Our daughter, Agnes, is an aspiring writer. At sixteen years old, she has already written a full length novel and started a new one. For years, she has been filling notebook upon notebook with stories and poetry, much of it quite good.
There is one small problem. Her best writings are deeply Catholic in theme and would not likely be picked up by any mainstream publishing company. We were discussing the realities of today's market-driven publishing world when she said, "You know, it is kind of paralyzing not to be able to tell stories from a Catholic perspective, because that is the only perspective I have."
It is troubling that a quarter of Americans identify themselves as Catholics, yet mainstream publishers would be more likely to publish a teen novel about drugs or suicide or depression (or worse) than her tales of nobility and sacrifice and grace. When my mother was Agnes's age, The Bells of St. Mary's won the oscar for Best Picture. Hard to imagine it even getting made today.
What has become of our culture?
So many times, I look about my house and feel exhausted seeing all the same old things that need to be done. There are dishes in the sink, crumbs on the floor, and papers piled high and needing to be filed. Laundry bubbles up like some endless fiber spring. If you had looked at my house a week ago, or a month ago, or fifteen years ago, you would have found all the same things collecting in all the same places, and I have often asked myself why, why, why have I not gotten control of them? Why have I not figured out the secret to making all these things stay put away and out of sight, retreating like a colony of ants when its stone is overturned?
Then a thought occurred to me. A home is not some work of art that we perfect until it is forever complete and beautiful. It is more like a garden. The weeds keep creeping in, and it needs constant watering and pruning. A season of neglect brings forth an unruly tangle, yet hard work and devotion make it a haven more pleasing than any fixed piece of artwork could ever be.
Ah, well, time for me to put on a pair of gloves and get at those weeds.