A few days ago Mara asked me to tell her a story. We used to tell her a story every single night at bedtime after reading and after turning out the light, and there were very few repeats, although when we started reading her The Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books and the Oz books and other chapter books this practice of making up stories for her ceased. Now she asks me to tell her a story at all times of the day, while I’m rushing around preparing to go to work and when we sit down to eat.
For the last, oh, ten months I have been too exhausted to enjoy the effort it takes to craft a story in my head from scratch, and if truth be told many of my stories (I will not say Angela’s) Mara will recognize later in life when she reads cliassic literature such as Tolkien’s Smith of Wootten Major (the beautiful and haunting companion story to the lighthearted Farmer Giles of Ham) or listens to, say, The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare”.
Being too tired to make up a really clever yarn, and riffing on the Little Red Hen, a story whose denouement had been troubling me lately and which I happened to be mulling over in my mind, I told this tale:
“Nuh-uh and Uh-uh and Uh-Huh were three siblings who decided to walk into town…”
“Was that their names?” interrupted Mara.
“Yes, those were their names. So they set out toward town, and on the way they came to the house of Mr. McGillicuddy, who was on his roof cleaning his gutters but couldn’t get down because his ladder had fallen down into the yard. He called to the children and asked Nuh-uh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’
“And Nuh-uh said ‘nuh-uh’.
“So Mr. McGillicuddy asked Uh-uh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’
“And Uh-uh said ‘uh-uh’.
“So then Mr. M–“
My wife interrupted. “What kind of names are those? And why would they just say their own names?” Angela demanded with what I would call a sneer except that it was lighthearted and not intended to injure, so let’s call it a snort.
I lifted my eyebrows in wonderment. “Do you object,” I queried, “to something about this story that I’m making up out of my own head…and did I mention that it’s my story?”
“Well it just seems goofy.” She spilled another handful of oatie-os onto Millie’s tray. Millie began picking them up carefully and putting them into her mouth and sucking on them.
I proceeded with the story, which went something like this:
“So then Mr. McGillicuddy asked Uh-huh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’
“And Uh-huh said ‘uh-huh’ and he went over and lifted the ladder.”
“She went over,” said Mara. “Not he.”
“Right,” said I, adjusting to the picture that I now saw in Mara’s mind of perhaps a girl her own age in what she had already intuited would be the starring role. “She.
“So they walked along and came to another house, where an old woman in a wheelchair was on her porch and was trying to get back into her house but needed help with the front door. She called to the children and asked Nuh-uh, ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’
“And Nuh-uh said ‘nuh-uh’.
“So the old woman asked Uh-uh, ‘ ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’
“And Uh-uh said ‘uh-uh’.
“So then she asked Uh-Huh, ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’
“And Uh-huh said ‘uh-huh’, and she went and opened the door for her.
“So finally they came into town, and as they were walking along the street they were arrested –“ (here I paused for a tense moment and lifted my nose slightly) “by the smell of fresh-baked apple pie. And the three children followed the wonderful aroma into the bakery, where the baker was just pulling a pie out of the oven and setting it on the counter to cool.
“Said Nuh-uh to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’
“And the baker looked up and, recognizing the children, said ‘Nuh-uh!’ And so Nuh-uh didn’t get any pie.
“And then Uh-uh said to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’
“And the baker said ‘Uh-uh!’ And so Uh-uh didn’t get any pie either.
“Then Uh-huh said to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’
“And the baker said ‘Uh-huh!’ and gave Uh-huh a big piece of apple pie.”
That was the end of the story. Since I often have no idea how they will end (like my blog posts) I was rather pleased that this particular story seemed to finish with a nice sharp crack. Mara went on with her dinner, which is not to say she didn’t enjoy the story, but she takes these things for granted sometimes. Angela was still shaking her head as though she were trying to figure out how to break it to her Facebook crowd that she had married a buffoon.
Mara asked for the story again the next night at dinner, and I told it again. Again Angela took me to task about why each of the characters just said their own name, and expressed disapproval with her entire lovely face.
Tonight Mara asked for the story again. This time, although I gave the old lady the name of Mrs. Grainsworthy, I left the man on the roof unnamed, so Mara interjected that his name was Dickens, and also said the reason the children were going to town was to see their cousin Kayla. (These details are enormously helpful.)
Angela aired her complaint afresh, as though the story should make more logical sense somehow, but I tendered my opinion that Mara, for whom the tale was made, did not seem to suffer from a similar inability to suspend disbelief. In fact when I asked Mara to explain to Mommy why the children just said their names, Mara said that maybe they were just saying their names and those people thought they were answering them. I thought this explanation represents a pretty fatalistic and bleak view of the world, and I don’t think Mara really thinks this when she hears the story, but for Mara, hearing a story and theorizing about its dramaturgical devices are activities with different goals. She hears the story apart from any internal editor telling her that things have to make logical sense. It makes poetical sense to her. It ends as it should. And why wouldn’t there be three siblings so named? Mara is untroubled.
Yet my true love chafes. I have made up hundreds of stories for Mara on the spot — as has Angela — some silly, some beautiful, some didactic, some a little spooky, but none of them have ever met with this kind of critical panning by my co-author.
She suggested I blog about it. Maybe you all can explain it to her. Emerson-like, I refuse to defend myself (that is, like Emerson I write an essay defending myself instead). But I think there are at least several ways to understand the story, which is why I think it’s destined to become a family classic.
Your turn. What do you make of it? There are no wrong answers.