A friend asked me to submit an answer to the question “Why do I read what I read,” and base it upon a children’s book published in 1911. What follows is the short story I wrote. When my friend received my submission, she told me she had not expected a story but a few lines. However, she loved this piece and suggested I have it published. It seemed to me that with a blog titled “Year of 5,000 Books, I should post it for you to read. Enjoy…
It is cold and rainy like all the other cold rainy nights that seem to eradicate all light from Londonderry town and tonight is sadly no different from that Friday night a fortnight ago. I remember it and believe I always shall for mama and I were hurrying to prepare for the Shabbat when papa stormed in.
“Stien’s twins are ill again,” he said. He grabbed his medical bag and rushed out.
I saw mama grab her stomach, groan, and crumple to the floor. By the time I had moistened a compress and knelt at her side she was gone…gone from me as surely as if she had never been.
Papa found me there cradling her head as I cried, “Mama told me she was not ill but merely with child. She made me promise that I would keep her secret for she wanted to surprise you in the spring!”
A sigh escaped papa’s lips. He picked me up and drew me into the soothing comfort of his warm embrace. “Oh my dear one,” he said, he voice ragged with loss, “Mama knew she was ill and did not wish to burden you unduly.”
I shook my head and pushed away from him. “Sir,” I insisted as if I were role-playing rather than mourning, “due you take me for a simpleton!”
“No, I take you for what you are dear daughter--a child who has lost her mama. Nothing more…nor less!”
I glared at him. this man…this father who had been gone when mama needed him the most! My father the doctor who had given up the comfort most doctors had to work with the poor was able to save their lives but not the one he was sworn to love. No retort came to mind so I allowed him to take me to my bed where he fluffed my pillow, lay me down, and covered me up. He was about to leave when it seemed, though I am not certain since, it was quite dark in the long narrow drafty closet that served as my room-but it seemed that he hesitated, nodded and sighed. “I will return momentarily.”
“I would not notice if you did,” I snipped hating myself for becoming less than my mama had taught me to be, yet angry with him for not taking care of her.
“Your mama feared you would act this way,” he muttered. He closed the door behind him.
Once I heard it close, I began to wail and sob. At some point, I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, I could see faint shards of light between the floor and door. It must be morning, I thought. My stomach grumbled in reply. I listened for footfalls but there was no sound. A sense of foreboding prompted me to leap from my bed for many children--I had heard when bereft of hearth and home, were wont to roam the streets. “Oh,” I silently prayed, “dear papa please, be understanding, kind and forgiving…please!”
I put on as best a face as I could, opened the door a crack and looked around. The kitchen, which had been in disarray the night before, was set to rights. And mama--as much as I had wished the situation to be different from the one I remembered—when I scanned the room, there was no mama. Then I heard voices from their bedroom, peeked in and saw auntie and papa in conversation as they prepared mama for burial.
They looked up. For some reason, which I cannot yet fathom, when they did, I shied away.
“Alice, come back here,” my aunt insisted.
I aquesied and stood waiting.
Aunt walked around me as if taking me in for the very first time. I saw her open her mouth as if to say something.
However, before she could papa sat down, patted his knee as he always had when he wished to invite me to join him. Aware that he had forgiven my behavior of the night before I jumped onto his lap and kissed his face as tears, both his, and mine mingled. When we had finally dispensed with our apologies, he insisted, “Now then, I have something for you.” When he pulled a cloth wrapped package from behind mama’s pillow I wondered at what he had said for it was apparent that mama had purposefully wrapped it in what remained of her wedding gown.
Papa saw tears course down my face, took out his kerchief and said, “Now we will have none of that,” as he alsway had when Mama was alive. I wanted to reprimand him. Instead, I sniffled them back to please my papa. When I saw him force a smile it seemed to me that, he was relieved that I would not make a scene but be a sensible girl. “Mama knew that she was dying and made me promise that when she did I would give you this book as a gift from me to you, but one wrapped in her love, which,” he insisted while he pulled out his kerchief and dabbed at his eyes, “which she promised would last you your whole life through.”
I wanted to yell at him and tell him he was a bloody fool to think that a book--no matter how grand, could replace my mother. Instead, I unwrapped the precious fabric, which was all that remained of my parents’ pledge of their troth to each other and read, "Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie, illustrated by F. D. Bedford." It being 1911, I knew this book cost more than my papa and mama should have ever thought to spend. For gifts were usually made at home and done from scraps and bits or on rare occasions yarn for mama to knit a much needed scarf, mittens or sweater could be purchased or bartered for if need be. However, a book--not the Holy Book, a children’s book from the looks of it, was a singularly odd gift indeed.
“Your mama fancied it for you since it is about children some of whom do not have a mother. She hoped that it would give you solace if instead of thinking only about yourself, you did as she did and strove to use your situation to help others.”
I wanted to yell at papa for making me feel far worse than I already did. Yet I could not for mama was right and I knew it. I nodded my head, took the slim volume, turned, and entered the kitchen. I put the kettle on to boil and sat down by the window where the light was best. An hour passed--maybe two before I noticed that the pain in my heart had somewhat been ameliorated by my concern for Wendy, her brothers, Peter Pan and the lost boys.
I began to write down all that I have shared with you. However, that was a very longtime ago. Tonight I am giving this book to you Johnny as it was given to me for you see this book is for children like you. Ah, I see you are looking at me as if to say, grandmamma no one I have cared for has died. You are right and glad I am of that! Yet since this novel helped me become me, I believe with Gods help the very same thing will happen to you so let us read it together tonight.