No matter what my father may have said, I was not the most adorable five-year-old in the history of the world. I was contrarian at every opportunity. I rooted for the Cubs in a family of Phillie Fanatics. I cheered for Nixon in the debate while everyone else clapped for Kennedy. I preferred pomegranates to apples and grapefruits to oranges.
But none of the foregoing transgressions were as contrarian as my professed lack of interest in reading books — this in spite of having a mother, an uncle and three cousins employed as librarians.
Only one set of books redeemed me and allowed me acceptance in the intellectual society of my family, namely: Babar. I was hopelessly, completely, and inexplicably interested in the lives of Babar, Celeste, and all of their progeny. This obsession afforded every relative a surefire gift idea at birthday time, as though I were a middle-aged man interested in golf.
There were other books in my childhood. I recall being read “Ten Apples Up on Top.” I think it featured monkeys. I recall seeing “Where the Wild Things Are,” with its fantastic creatures. There was “Black Beauty,” though I had no interest in horses, whatsoever. All of these lesser mammals were tolerated only if I knew there was a heavy dose of elephant coming up afterwards.
Somewhere around the age of eight or nine, I suppose, my love of Babar receded and, with it, the intimacy of being read to in my mother’s lap or beside her on the sofa or bed. Those moments slip away unnoticed by the eight-year-old. But the parent notices, like when your five or six-year-old will no longer hold your hand in public. It may be a rite of passage for the child but it feels more like last rites for the parent.
When my daughter, Sarah, was old enough to be read to, my childhood love of Babar popped into my head. I hadn’t thought about it for twenty-five years. I immediately acquired an armful of books and looked forward to sharing them with Sarah. I was certain she would share my taste. I wondered which ones would be read over and over to the point of memorization.
It did not work out as I had envisioned. Sarah’s passion was for the Berenstain Bears – all seventy or ninety or three hundred of them! I found them to be tedious, moralizing, trite and predictable. I was disappointed. I was chagrined. Can you tell? I wondered how my own child could not share something that was so special to me. How could she not have been wired just like me?
Over time, I found a way to understand and accept the situation. Upon reflection, it made total sense. Just like her dear old dad, she’s a contrarian.