A Child’s Garden of Verses

I stood somewhat blearily, staring around what I assumed might still be my house, somewhere under there, and wondered: “Is there anything good about having an entire family subject to a violent stomach virus at the same time?”  After some thought, it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually cooked a meal in a few days.  Yeah, I like cooking, but since the thought of food made me– excuse me, where’s the washroom?  And the smell of food– sorry, gotta run.  And if I’d had to cook for anyone else– oh, gosh, give me a sec.  Point is, when all of us had the same feelings about food, it was just as well that we could leave the kitchen to its own devices while we spent our limited energy on the laundry.  (Open House Announcement: Come Over And Throw In A Load!)

Being who I am, of course, the other upside to what we’ll romantically call “my illness” (barf, barf, barf) was a wave of nostalgia which rose as the tide of nausea began to recede.  “Nostalgia for what, precisely?” I hear you ask nervously.  No, no, not for barf– I’ll leave that particular brand of nostalgia to my parents (sorry, Mummy and Daddy).  The nostalgia I feel is for, well, for R. L. Stevenson’s childhood frailty, when you come right down to it.

Did you grow up with A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson from Chronicle Books?  If not, are you aware that you need to go to your parents and school teachers and sit them down and tell them that while you know they meant only the best for you, you’re very sorry to say that you think they committed a serious parenting and educational flaw?  Because this is one of those books that I give to new parents like other people give– wait, what do other people give?  I think people gave us clothes and things.  Someone gave us a diaper pail but we already had one and, frankly, even the most, erm, digestively-active baby only needs the one and trust me I have experience after this weekend… but I think I’ve cycled back around here, just like Friday night’s meal did– gosh, sorry, folks.  Let’s make up for it with the lovely cover:

A Child's Garden of Verses

The point, and, vaguely delirious though I might be at the moment, I do have one, is this: when I was growing up, I had one picture of illness in my head.  Go and fetch your copy of A Child’d Garden of Verses— the Chronicle Books one, mind you, I don’t even know why that other one is on your shelf, do you?  If you don’t own it (see note above regarding parenting flaws), click on that link above and order it, or go to your local bookstore and make sure that they know to stock it for just such emergencies.  Your local library should also have a copy, so you’re now entirely devoid of excuses.  OK, now open it to pp. 28-29, “The Land of Counterpane.”  We can all pause for a moment to choke up together.  That is what illness, or at least convalescence, looks like to me, and that’s what I mean by feeling nostalgia for Stevenson’s childhood frailty.

I know, I know– heck, we all know: actual, real-life sickness looks like several loads of stinky laundry, sleepless nights and half-hour naps during the day, and electing just to not wash your hair tonight because, hell, there’s only a few more hours before dawn anyway and she’s just going to barf again tomorrow, so may as well try to sleep now and wash it out tomorrow, right?  (Sorry, everyone, really, so sorry– I promise I do bathe regularly at ordinary times.)  Actual, real-life sickness looks like losing count of how many times any of you threw up (we’ll go with a nice, discreet “several times, I believe”) and figuring out how to unstick a frozen window on the coldest night of winter so far because, by God, it was necessary, all right?  That’s what sickness looks like, feels, like… smells like.

But don’t we all, just every once in a while, feel a tinge of nostalgia for a nice romantic “illness,” or, well for convalescence, that period after the worst of it but before you’re fit for the real world again?  Don’t you sometimes whisper, “Dammit, I could use a sick day… like when I was a kid and someone just looked after me.”  You’re not thinking, “Oh, I wish I could barf six or seven times in a row, I can’t remember what number I’m up to.”  You’re thinking about nice, cuddly things, right?  Maybe an extra pillow or a fluffy blanket.  Well, what I remember is my mother’s voice reading me “The Land of Counterpane.”  I know we read plenty of other poems from this book, and I know we read them at ordinary bedtimes or ordinary days.  I also know it was one of the books I sometimes sort of snuck from the high shelf to just look at the pictures and touch it even though I was supposed to make sure it stayed really nice and clean because it was one of the books my mother really liked (sorry, Mummy, I was really bad at leaving your nice books alone, and I totally get it now that the Changeling’s around).  But when I look at my copy, I remember delicate, watercolour-like childhood convalescence, the kind that never really happened, but that we all experienced for just that moment when your mother’s nearby, and her voice is reading to you quietly while you sip something you don’t normally get, especially in the middle of the day (juice or Coke or that elusive “just something nice”), and you’re contemplating the possibility of a nap, or maybe, maybe you can get another story first?

Now I read these poems (“poemos,” she calls them, in toddler-lingo) to the Changeling.  I read them when she’s well, I read them when she’s sick, I read them when she’s tired, I read them when she’s alert.  I read them in Aruba, I read them in Toronto, I read them in Boston.  These get read all the time.  I never tire of them, and neither does she.  She flips to exactly the pages she wants: “Rain,” or “Read me ‘Nod.'”  Or whichever she wants.  The Changeling knows them well, and she makes her own choices.  Sometimes she bargains for another one: “We’ll read just two, OK?”  Then: “How about one more?”  And I have no idea how she’ll come to remember them– maybe when she’s on the swing, or maybe when she’s looking at the stars.  Whichever of dozens of perfect childhood moments that maybe didn’t really happen, but which we all experienced in that one, crystalline second at the top of a swing, or when the wind caught your breath, or when you’re propped up against a pillow with your mother beside you… those moments which Stevenson captures with a perfection which brings you peace, even when you’re going to throw in yet another load of laundry.

(If anyone’s going to the store, could you grab me another thing of detergent, please?  We’re almost out.)

5 thoughts on “A Child’s Garden of Verses

  1. […] A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson is a classic, perfect expression of childhood and all of its nuances and beauty, from playing quietly while sick to journeying to the haunting Land of Nod while sleeping to digging holes in the sand at the seashore. This edition, from Chronicle Books, is as visually reassuring and lovely as the verses are. I still remember reading these with my mother, and I hope that the Changeling will always remember reading them with me. I have purchased many, many copies of this book for friends of mine, and I don’t expect that to change. […]


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