by Zinta Aistars
Days rush by us in a swirl of busyness, nights fall over us in gasping reprieve. Stress and strain wear away at the finer sensibilities, and it seems, at times, in all our mad rush and rat race, we forget the simplest pleasures—those very ones that sustain us best.
Remember the bedtime story? Your eyes falling heavily, ever more heavily shut, mind swirling toward imaginary places, surreal and magical dreamscapes, and the soothing sound of Mama’s or Papa’s voice, reading to you and lulling you into a sweet sleep.
How many of us still embark on this dreamy literary island before sleep, either reading to or being read to?
I remember my personal favorite, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, peeking over Mama’s arm to lose myself into the pages, odd little creatures in odd little towns, each in their odd little beds, and one great yawn bonding them all.
“The news just came in from the County of Keck that a very small bug by the name of Van Vleck is yawning so wide you can look down his neck …”
By book’s end, I was yawning too, one great delicious yawn, comforted to know that the world yawned with me, with all its gooses and mooses, Crandles with candles, and Collapsible Frinks.
My love for bedtime stories carried over into my own parenting days. As soon as I headed for the great pillowy couch in our Kentucky living room, my own two rompers bounced along behind me, each curling up against my side, either side, and peering over my elbows into the book I had chosen for the evening. Yes, I read them the Sleep Book, too, and they, too, adored it. But there were so many others. We made adventure treks to the local library to collect a fresh pile each week. Classics like Seuss and Beatrix Potter would last through the ages. But we added in new children’s authors, too, and I marveled at the beauty of modern children’s books, rivaling the art reproduction books my father, the artist, favored. The selection in this genre is a thing of beauty and wonder, even while adult literature seems to be lagging behind …
But my children are grown now. My elderly parents no longer read to me at bedtime; I have, on occasion, read now to them. Yet my love, even my need, for the soothing power of a bedtime story has not waned. Perhaps only increased, as the stuff of daily living increases in its levels of stress and strain. I live alone, and so I most often read to myself, a ready stack of books always on my nightstand. Even if only a page or two before sleep overtakes, reading still smoothes out the rough edges of the hectic day. Rattled nerves calm. To-do lists, never finished, fade away. Stories, however grown up now, restore my sense that I am not yawning alone in this world, that there are a great many other Crandles with candles and Collapsible Frinks yawning with me, and wishing and drifting into sweet, restorative sleep.
So, last night, when an old friend offered to read to me over the phone, I sighed in contented anticipation and accepted. My lights were already out. The house was dusky, only a wan light of moon and summer stars seeping through the uncurtained window. I plumped a pillow into position in one corner of my living room couch, and settled into its soft and cool lap, closing my eyes, holding the phone to my ear.
He began to read to me. He had wanted to share a particularly moving essay, a memoir, from a baseball anthology he had recently purchased. I listened to his deep, low and sonorous voice in its even pacing, and let the story draw me in …
It didn’t matter that I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a sports fan. I have attended a dozen or so baseball games over my lifetime, always in a show of companionship to a male friend or a spouse, rather than driven by my own interest. But a story well told is a story well told, no matter the subject matter, and this one was. Well told and well read. It described the poignant relationship between military son and his athlete father, the physical separation between the two while father played in the major leagues and son was deployed in military service overseas in 1945. To maintain the bond between father and son, however, for all his years absent, the son meticulously wrote a diary, something of an ongoing letter to his father, noting his war experiences even as he noted his father’s baseball stats.
My friend’s deep voice upped a notch as emotion overtook him. His own father had been gone from him many years hence. They, too, had struggled with the challenges of a father-son connection, however differently. And when a good story mirrors something of our own experiences, it moves us, twinges and tugs at our hearts, and helps to release tears that too often we otherwise hold back. He shared this bedtime baseball story with me, because it stirred baseball memories of his own, memories he had shared with his father, now shared with me, many miles away, by reading me a bedtime story over the phone.
This wasn’t the first time, not nearly, that my old friend had read a bedtime story to me, although it had been a long while since the last time. On that occassion, I lay back on a Victorian divan at The Tabard Inn in Washington D.C., after a long day of business travel, dotted by business meetings. My friend’s familiar voice, reading to me from half a country away, a series of humorous flash fiction pieces, had me chuckling softly in shared amusement. The stories chased away the rush of the day and made me feel like home again. Safe again. Like a child curled into a parent’s lap, listening and dreaming of faraway places and great adventures.
A bedtime story, after all, is soothing and sweet at any age. Parent to child, older sibling to younger, aunt to nephew, graying friend to graying friend. It makes us remember. It makes us forget.