He is much too young to understand the meaning of those mysterious, curving black lines beneath each picture. But his eyes, round and open like stargazer lilies, eagerly absorb the images, studying them like tiny treasures beneath a microscope.
My own eyes are barely open. I am stumbling through the haze of diapering, feeding, and all-night rocking. I am stunned by how my life and body have changed so forcefully, so suddenly. Will I ever be led back to a version of myself I recognize?
I cannot answer this question, but I do understand the meaning of those black lines on the page. So I read them to my infant son, forming each word slowly, for his sake and for my own.
We rehearse these stories together, often. The simple words act as tiny buoys for my soul throughout the early days of motherhood, providing moments of rest and lift when it seems I am merely treading water.
Now, he sits beside me, stringing letters into words.
“Go—Dog—Go,” he reads.
“Dogs—in—cars—" He stops the sentence short, unsure of the next word.
Although he is frustrated when he cannot figure it out, the strange lines eventually come into focus and his eyes spark: “Oh! It’s again.” We continue to rehearse words together, over and over. I fill in the blanks he cannot puzzle, help him work out the sounds, and patiently walk him through the steps.
Later, from the distance of the kitchen sink to the dining room table, I call out letters as he scribes them diligently onto white paper, using his own slanted mix of uppercase and lowercase letters:
We continue this routine each afternoon. Dozens of computer paper drafts begin to fill the art drawer and recycling bin. Frequently, he brings me piles of white paper, filled with words and markered drawings, and I place three staples along one edge—his very own book. We assemble so many paper books that it seems we are running our own fledgling publishing company, right here, in the dining room.
When the books are complete, we read them together: tales about animals, dinosaurs, vacations, and even a few nonsensical joke books. We laugh over them and enjoy them repeatedly. Stories continue to connect us—narrative and imagination overlaying our shared blood.
Those paper books begin multiplying much faster than my organizational skills. They pile up on my table, become strewn about the living room, get dotted by spilled orange juice, and haphazardly sit on the floor of the kids’ bedroom after being read at bedtime. Scattered throughout the house like tiny stones, the stapled-together stories slowly form a path for me to walk upon.
In the dark, early mornings, before the dining room table becomes covered with markers and paper, I roll out of bed and tiptoe across the cracks of this old house, praying not to wake anyone. I sit at the table, my fingers curling around a pen or sitting on tiny black keys, and I take up the same task as my son: stringing letters together.
Very slowly, the letters become words. Even after years of studying words and learning how to connect them, the open spaces still puzzle me. I feel clumsy, as though after birthing two children, I am re-learning everything for the first time.
After bedtime, I shuffle aside my kids’ art and clear a space for my own. Tonight, I am sitting next to a stapled-together book about silly monsters—a different monster for each letter of the alphabet. I flip through the 26 pages of monsters, with their four eyes, funny arms, and giant teeth. I am not worried about monsters lurking in my kids’ bedroom closet, but I do fear the monsters waiting for me in the margins of my own blank pages, or in the dishes still stacked in the sink.
I wonder, regularly, if this creative work matters. I wonder if it helps anyone—especially my family—for me to sit over here making keystrokes and squiggly lines, when it might mean no one will be able to locate a clean bowl for breakfast.
But other questions plague me, too, such as: what if I give my children a lifetime of pristine dishes, but never give them my stories? What if I help my children learn to use their words, but I never use my own?
I settle more deeply into my own skin and into this snack-stained dining room chair, and I continue to line up letters, walking words across the page.
I am up early one morning, writing. My daughter—a few years younger than her brother, but always right on his tail—bounds down in her jammies and crawls in my lap. “I want to write too, Mama,” she says.
I set her up beside me with a tiny notepad and a marker, hoping to squeeze in a little more writing before making breakfast. She draws pictures and the few letters she knows, narrating her thoughts out loud:
“Oh no! The bad guys have taken toys from kids. But here comes a big T-Rex to scare them away. Roar…”
I stop writing and listen more intently to her story. I make a mental note that my kids are thinking about dinosaurs and monsters quite a bit these days—perhaps a topic worth bringing up at breakfast?
But as I watch her create, I am also amazed by how easily she understands the essence of so many stories: conflict, resolution. Evil, good. Somehow, three decades behind me, she is already touching on themes I’m working through in my own art: fear, hope, need, rescue.
My kids remind me that storytelling is as simple as piecing together marker-covered paper, yet powerful enough to ground us to questions larger than ourselves.
I glance again at the pile of stapled-together creative offerings on my table. Maybe it matters, I think. Maybe there’s a reason it felt like the simplest of children’s stories could give me lift throughout those early, foggy days of motherhood. Maybe there is something sacred in this practice: in creating and sharing those creations with each other.
My children are at the beginning of their stories, and I am in the middle of my own. But in so many ways, it feels like we are taking our first steps together, building our muscles and our momentum. Each day, we spread out blank pages across the dining room table and weave together letters and words, bound by staples and courage. Our stories are teaching us to walk, to explore the imaginative world that surrounds and connects us, like our unseen shared blood.
Guest post written by Jenna Brack. Jenna is a teacher and writer living in Kansas City. She has an M.A. in English and too many overdue fines at the library. She enjoys good coffee, serious conversation, and not-too-serious fiction.
Photo by Jennifer Batchelor