For years I’ve been making up stories for my kids at bedtime. It started with the two older kids when they were four and six and sharing a room, and at first all the stories were unrelated. Maybe a butterfly king was searching for his lost butterfly crown, or maybe two clouds were racing to see who could circle the world first, or I remember one where their toothbrushes came to life and danced in the sink while we slept. Eventually, I told a story about a boy and girl who lived in two castles on either side of a river. Being human, they naturally loved anything that seemed to revolve around them, and they started to ask for more of those stories.
Standing between their beds, silhouetted by the hallway light, I made up dozens of twisted and half-baked plot lines. Every now and then, a smart story would emerge that needed a proper telling, so I’d leave them hanging with the dreaded “to be continued.” Cue the groans and pleas.
It was a season, in the end. Eventually the big kids got separate rooms, then we added another young’un and nighttime creativity was trumped by a need for sleep. Sometimes I still make up stories for Ben (he’s 3 years old), when he has to go to bed earlier than the others, but the big kids have moved on to Harry Potter, The Wingfeather Saga, the Hardy Boys, and Calvin and Hobbes, and they want to read till the last second before they close their eyes.
Then a few evenings ago, my eight-year-old son was tearing through The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic for the second time and the other two kids were playing and winding down in the other bedroom. As I began to shoo them to bed, the three-year-old asked me to tell a story. His older sister joined in, “pleeeeease dad!” It doesn’t take much, really.
I began as I always have – with the first thing that emerged from my mind.
Two kids walking to school, older sister, younger brother. Little brother spots a beautifully glittering rainbow colored leaf, but all the grass around it is singed. Big sister sees that it is dangerous to touch so scoops it up into a small metal box little brother had with him. (Ben actually has such a box and sometimes brings it to school).
At this point in the story, Livi and Ben are all smiles. Its like old times, but with a different little brother. They are completely caught up in the story, and I have no idea what’s coming next. The ideas come in real time. Big sister keeps box with the leaf in her backpack. When they part ways at school, little brother waves goodbye, big sister rudely sticks out her tongue.
Big sister goes to class and is obviously not herself. She’s uppity to friends and classmates (I narrated a few snide exchanges), and eventually talks back to the teacher and gets sent to the principals office. On her way she sees little brother in the hall and he asks her for the box with the leaf they found so she digs it out of her backpack and says something like “here’s your dumb box.”
Mom comes to pick up big sister who is suddenly back to her normal kindhearted self, they arrive home to a message on the answering machine from the school. Now little brother is misbehaving and is being sent home for the day. Big sister starts to piece together what is going on.
At this point I see my daughter hiding behind the covers. I don’t usually keep a lot of eye contact during these stories because my brain is so preoccupied with figuring out the story. I peeked behind the covers to find her face all red and wrinkled and streaked with tears. She was silently bawling.
As a parent, I was horrified. I immediately derailed the story, hopped on the bed, held her close, and quickly made up an ending where she saves the world from destruction. That did not help, so we just sat and hugged and I apologized. As you may have surmised, she saw herself in the character, and became emotionally overwhelmed when “she” started treating friends and loved ones with such venom.
The evening’s sudden dark turn reacquainted me with the raw power of story, and reminds me now of the sacred burden storytellers bear. Good storytellers engage the imagination and have access to the entire range of human emotion, so we place our trust in them when we enter into their stories. For what on earth is more powerful than imagination? Could we even have love without it? Surely we could not have hate.
Most of the memories from my childhood are the ones associated with deep emotion, so if she’s anything like me, my daughter will probably remember something about that night for the rest of her life. Do any of you have memories of visceral reactions to story at a young age? And if so, what were those stories about?
(This post was originally published in The Rabbit Room.)