Thinking of my granddaughter, as I was when I wrote the previous post, I began to think of her relationship to books. Like all of my grandchildren she had been read to from her earliest days, both in German and English (her mother is German) and she acquired both languages simultaneously. Her American father, my son, died when she was twenty months old, but his language had already become part of her knowledge, and her mother continued to read to her in English, to speak English to her often.
Here she is at two and a half, during an April visit to the United States, four months after the Christmas snowstorm visit. That spring my daughter-in-law, Margret, and Nadine came from Germany and spent two weeks with me in the United States.
Beanie, as we often called her then, was beginning to acquire language---both German and English---and she called me “Oma” in the style of German toddlers.
One evening during the second week, I volunteered to baby-sit so that Margret could have an evening with friends. It was not an easy decision for Margret. She had not left Nadine with a sitter for eleven months, not since the day the previous spring when my son, Nadine’s father, had kissed them both good-bye, gone off cheerfully on a routine trip, and never returned. Nadine was too young to understand about plane crashes or death. Gradually she had stopped asking where her papa was.
Now, on an April evening, Margret said a casual “See you later” and slipped away with her friends while Nadine and I were busy playing a complicated game involving dolls going to the potty and receiving applause and rewards.
It was later, when the sun had set and the dolls had become boring, that Nadine looked around and realized that her mother was gone. I can only guess the painful fragments of memories that must have flooded back to her then. Eleven months before, one of the two people she loved most in the world had gone away with a cheerful “Bye-bye” and had never come back. And now her other parent had disappeared. Terrified, she ran to the closed front door, collapsed on a heap there on the floor, crying desperately and calling in German words that I couldn’t understand.
I knelt beside her, offering milk, toys, music: anything that might help. Finally, shuddering with sobs, she took my hand when I suggested books, and went with me to the stack of her favorites. She knew exactly which one she wanted. All the others were shoved aside and she went right to OWL BABIES, by Martin Waddell.
Then she curled up on my lap, still whimpering, and watched the pages intently while I read the story of the owl babies who woke up in the night and realized that their mother was gone.
“I want my mother,” the smallest owl baby said again and again. I could feel Nadine tense in my arms, sharing his plea.
Finally, of course, Owl Mother swooped home, her great wings wrapping the babies with comfort. Nadine touched that page with her small hand, tracing with her finger the outline of those wings. “Read it again,” she whispered, her cheeks still wet with tears.
My granddaughter and I read OWL BABIES over and over that night. When Nadine’s mother, just like Owl Mother, came home at last, the child was groggy with exhaustion, fear, and grief.
But a book had helped her through.
This past summer, Nadine came, as she often does, to the USA for a visit. She's fifteen now, a serious scholar who is fluent in French as well as English and German.
She grinned when we met her plane. "Look what I found at the Luxembourg Airport," she said and rummaged in her bag. "Bébés Chouettes!"