Hearing my mom choke up over The Velveteen Rabbit is one of my first high-impact memories. She was reading to three or four of us – at least one baby was on her lap – so I must have been about five years old. When she stopped mid-sentence, I thought she’d heard something outside. I closed my eyes and listened through the rain. But as she sniffled and struggled to read some more, I realized my self-controlled mom was about to cry.
It was an awful, awesome moment. Mom crying? And why? I remember studying her contorted face for clues, seeing the raw emotion and turning away. I focused intently on the sofa fabric, examining its panels of teapots and weird orange flowers. My gaze roamed the paneled living room. The fire crackled sharply in the brick fireplace. In a pine frame above it, three girls peered over their book to watch us reading ours.
I had read ahead and couldn’t see what had upset her. It was sad that the nurse had discarded the germ-laden bunny, but I knew he was going to play with the wild bunnies soon. If she would just keep reading, she’d see that all ended well.
I get it now, of course – and so does any adult, let alone a mom, who’s tried to read The Velveteen Rabbit aloud.
Mom had always read to us, and our heads were already filled with nursery rhymes, Beatrix Potter, Hans Christian Anderson, Bible stories galore, and all hundred and one of One Hundred and One Famous Poems. With five kids under seven years old, she knew some of us understood more of a story than others – but that all of us were getting the idea of it together. And, as a former teacher, she had a good sense for which books worked for all.
Mom not only chose well but read well. Her use of inflection, accent, and voice taught me to read that way when I read to myself. And with the feelings and voices so clear in our heads, it was natural for us kids to reenact scenes, not wanting the story to end just because it was over. This picture, for instance, is of three Little Women – I’ll leave you to guess which is which.
Acting wasn’t the only way we extended the life of a book. We’d make it last by flaunting some big words we’d picked up, by writing a spinoff, by breaking codes or baking scones or singing a special song. Reading became so associated with vocal
theatrics, family closeness, and sensory follow-up that books never felt like distant tales of other people’s lives. I could easily see myself right there in the story. I felt the same anticipation, terror, relief, or joy the protagonist felt. And I knew my sisters and brothers felt it too.
As I got older Mom read to me only if I was sick, and too Nyquil-dazed to hold open a Hardy Boys book, or browse through the huge stacks of Readers Digest and National Geographic she’d bring me. Then she’d perch on the bed and read me an article while she rubbed my back. To this day the taste of chicken soup and soda crackers, and the smell of Vicks VapoRub, are tied to her voice and her hand. I can still feel the cool waft of air as she pulled up the sheets and tucked them neatly around me — me and my umpteen velveteenish friends.
There was a time in my teens when I felt like the bunny himself, when “the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe.” But my mother’s love, and her love of books, have stayed with me. I read to my own kids as soon as they were born, because reliving these pleasures was such a joy for me. Whether they were getting the written story or not, they were definitely getting the story of my heart: that they were very loved and worth my time, and that books are important. The messages I got when my own mom read to me.
And like my mom, I could never get through the sweet parts without choking up. Especially in The Velveteen Rabbit . It’s the bunny’s unquestioning love for his boy, the almost-didn’t-happen ending, the moment when his first tear shows he’s real. Even now, reading it to other people’s children, I make lots of false starts before I just give up and paraphrase. “So, the bunny’s real. He comes alive. The end.”
Of course no kid lets you get away with that. Everyone wants to be there, feel it, understand what brought your little moment on.
The rabbit became real because the little boy made him so. Because the boy saw him as real all along, spent all his time with him, played with him, cared for him, and looked “at picture-books, while the little Rabbit cuddled close at his side.” I’m a Real mom now because my mom made me so.
Was there a reading moment with your mom that really got to YOU?