Monday, January 26, 2009

The very first thing that happened when I walked through the door tonight was that my six year old boy rocketed across the room, offering a library book.

"It's about Abe Lincoln.  He died.  He was shot.  By an actor."

I settled my groceries on the floor at my feet and when I knelt to take in this news, my eyes met the wide, blue eyes of my son.  

"It really happened." He said.

He was thrilled.  Thrilled.  More visibly thrilled by this book than by any number of "Star Wars" comics and the unending adventures of "Captain Underpants" combined.  Those were stories.  This was true.

"Read from here," he said and then he lowered his voice.  "It's about the killing part."  

I sat back on my heels and listened as Theo described the blood on Lincoln's head, the shape of the gun and Booth's jump to the stage below.  I don't like guns.  I don't like shooting.  When we read, I usually skip over the gruesome parts, cutting with agility around all kinds of bleak scenarios.  I thought that by trimming around violence, I could build for my children a more peaceful world.  Turns out I was wrong.  For Halloween, Theo did not want to be Luke Skywalker.  He wanted to be Darth Vadar.  My daughter invents stories of Evil Queens and Lost Orphans and Wicked Stepmothers.  It's the bad guys who get all the best lines; the bad guys who stick in the imagination and become the kind of titillating ghost stories that are too scary to continue, too delicious to end.  Violence is interesting.   When Theo finishes talking, I wait.  I'm wondering if John Wilkes Booth is going to find a place in Theo's imagination.  Is this drunk actor going to be more interesting than the man who freed the slaves?

"Mama," Theo said, "Read about Abe Lincoln.  He did so much."

We learned that Lincoln started his career at 28 and that he married Mary Todd.  When I try to skip over the fact that Lincoln lost two sons to illness, my own son catches me and makes me re-read the paragraph.  My voice cracks.  We read through the Civil war and I muscle through paragraphs about screaming men and drowned horses.  When I get to the Gettysburg Address, both of my children are still listening.  

"Should I read this?" I ask pointing to the big block of text on the page.  
"Read it, Mama," Sadie says.  She settles against me and her curls tickle my chin as I read Lincoln's dedication.  It is a beautiful speech to read aloud.  I am grateful to read it aloud to my children.  By the end, my eyes are wet and both of my kids are solemn.

"That is important," Theo says.  

I ask if he knows what it is about and he replies, "it's about being good to people."  

"It's good to be good," Sadie says.

The book ends with the shooting.  It's only one page and I read the whole thing.  

Theo can read.  He can read about the death of a son, the loss of a battle and the big, giant billboards for "My Bloody Valentine in 3D."  But he can also read the words, "with malice toward none; with charity for all..."  And I am here to help him understand. 


Elizabeth said...

That's so lovely and perfect for our post-election week.

Denise Emanuel Clemen said...

Geeze. Big Stuff. What a thrill to be there holding the book for your kids.