Part 5 of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. Today’s guest is Kerry Clare, author of essays, short fiction, and the fabulous literary blog Pickle Me This, where her daughter Harriet often makes guest appearances. Today, Kerry recalls Harriet’s first days, and how one particular book became “the story of our family … our private shorthand.” Kerry writes:
When I heard Esta Spalding read Night Cars on the original version of the website Seen Reading, the rhythm of the words was immediately lodged in my head. Night Cars is written by Teddy Jam (who was the novelist Matt Cohen) and illustrated by Eric Beddows. It was late November 2008 when I encountered Spalding’s reading, and I was pregnant. Not long after, I purchased my own copy of the book, inscribing the inside cover: “Merry Christmas in utero to our beloved baby. With love, your Mommy and Daddy(!)”.
The exclamation in parentheses was because our transformation into parents was impossible to imagine. The baby itself I only ever believed in during our appointments at the ultrasound clinic, and for half-hour windows afterwards. What a leap of faith it was to inscribe the book as I did, the whole arrangement still so tentative. I could have as easily written a question mark.
Night Cars begins, “Once there was a baby, who wouldn’t go to sleep…” And this point too was impossible, mostly because I didn’t want to know about it. Who would ever imagine being that parent up in the dark while the world slumbers, baby’s wide-open eyes reflecting light from the streetlamps outside? (One of the first novels I’d read after Harriet was born was Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, and how I’d identify with its world of night, with the strange clock that was striking thirteen: “Only the clock was left, but the clock was always there, time in, time out.”)
But the baby arrived, and Night Cars became our story too. Whose rhythm is really a lullaby, an almost-nonsense verse whose meaning became clearer the less sleep I got: “Someone needs a pillow/ Call a taxi on the phone/ Someone needs a good-night kiss/ Someone’s eyes have fallen down.” When we rocked our daughter, her eyes would start to get heavy, and though she’d fight it, those lids would eventually succumb to the lull. “Call a taxi,” we’d whisper when it happened, our private shorthand. Though as soon as we laid her in the bassinette, her eyes snapped open again.
In the daytime, I’d go for walks, Harriet strapped to my chest and falling asleep to the rhythm of my feet as they traced the grid of our neighbourhood streets. When she was awake, I was supposed to be narrating the world around us, but I was usually too exhausted so I cheated. It was easier to quote from Night Cars: “Fire engine, fire truck/ Waking everybody up,” I’d murmur as the shiny truck pulled out of the station on Howland Avenue. On Tuesday mornings as I navigated our stroller through a maze of bins: “Garbage man, garbage man, careful near that dream…” And as the seasons changed and the air grew chilly, “Slow snow falling deep…” It wasn’t the only poem I knew, but in those days, Night Cars seemed the most relevant, and it was the only one I could count on to remember.
It was also a benchmark, how we measured time as our baby grew. The first time Harriet slept through the night, she’d assumed the Night Cars baby’s sleeping pose, lying on her stomach with her bum in the air, and it seemed like a significant milestone. And these days, when she points to the sleeping baby in the book, it’s to repeat the story she’s heard so many times already, that once upon a time she slept like the Night Cars baby did, the unfathomable idea that she was ever so small. How far we all have come together.
These days she has much more in common with the baby at the end of the book, a big head stuck in a stripy shirt, a kid who pulls on big red boots to kick the snow, and heads out to the cafe with Dad for something chocolate. But the world around us is still very much the Night Cars world, trucks and taxis, night-time sirens, dodgy storefronts, sidewalks, stray dogs and donuts.
Kerry Clare lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter. Her essay about new motherhood, “Love is a Let Down,” was awarded an Honourable Mention at the 2011 National Magazine Awards, and also appeared in Best Canadian Essays 2011. Her essays, short fiction and book reviews have appeared in several Canadian magazines, and she writes about books and reading at her blog Pickle Me This.