It’s spring, and the sun’s warm glow is having a cheering effect upon us all, including the birds, who have been chirping like crazy. There is real happiness in being woken up by a robin’s song.
I’ve spent the last few days of this Easter weekend with my two year-old granddaughter, Penelope, while her parents were at the Royal Vic, seeing in the arrival of their second child, a baby boy. Not wanting Penelope to feel lost, with her parents inexplicably away, we spent many hours out together in the park, on the streets and in the yards of her quiet and friendly neighbourhood.
In typical Montreal fashion, the clement weather brought everyone out of hibernation, which allowed me to meet my son’s neighbours. Many used the cover of yard work to justify the pleasure of just being outside on a long weekend, while others seemed to be vying for the “Dog Walker of the Month” award. But for those with younger children, things were simple: it’s spring, school’s out, it’s time to play in the fresh air.
Penelope is so young. She is just beginning her exploration of the world outside the cocoon her parents have woven around her. And my own parental instincts won’t quit. Life is just too fraught with potential pain and hard lessons. So I stood by her side, watching for cars, for stray dogs, for ditches that were too deep and for people, big and small, who might do her harm, even as I smiled a warm greeting to every new acquaintance and coaxed her up the ladder, down the slide, or toward new friends.
At the park, we saw a toddler; a wee 18-month old with tiny bowed legs, and made top-heavy by the large bicycle helmet his parents had placed on his noggin, apparently because he never misses an opportunity to go at life head-first, come what may.
Oh, if only a helmet were enough.
In her poem “Three Women”, Sylvia Plath wrote that
It is a terrible thing
To be so open: it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world.
And this, of course, is exactly how a parent’s love for their child feels. I don’t know that anyone will ever compose a better verse than that one, but John Irving certainly succeeded in bringing to life the same lifelong pang that parents call loving in The World According to Garp.
I was a young graduate student when I first read Irving’s extraordinarily original novel, and of all the images that were created in that novel, the most forceful and memorable was the allegory of the undertow, first introduced when Garp’s family is by the ocean and little Walt, the youngest of the two children, is repeatedly warned by his parents to beware of the water’s pull. In the magical universe of the child, the force of the ocean is reinterpreted as something malevolent, and when his parents ask him why he keeps staring out intently at the coming waves, Walt answers that he is trying to see The Under Toad. This is narrative foreboding tinged with humour, yet it struck me then, and still does now, that it was a perfect metaphor for the fearful force of random disaster that haunts every parent.
Dennis Lehane’s searing and tragic novel, Mystic River, plays on this same fear, as one character after another―though none more than Jimmy Marcus― is submerged by the very worst things that can happen to anyone’s child.
In Mary Lawson’s beautiful novel, Crow Lake, the allegory of The Undertoad turns things upside down. Disaster strikes very early on, as siblings Luke, Matt, Katy and Bo (who is still a baby) are orphaned when their parents are killed in a car accident. Through the remainder of the novel, the reader is made to care deeply for the older boys―barely adults― who become parents overnight, and to fret for the younger girls, who are too young to understand what has happened, but old enough to be wounded by it.
In time, they find their way together with the help of relatives, of their community, and of their own resilience.
Perhaps you, too, have in mind a memorable book that evokes the exquisite pang of parental love. If so, please share it by leaving a comment below!
“I don’t remember who said this, but there really are places in the heart you don’t even know exist until you love a child.”