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Connie Clendenen reading to Jenny and David, 1963

The Velveteen Mom

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.

Becky, Jenny, and Amy Clendenen - 1971Acting 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.

The Velveteen Rabbit - 1922 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? Tell us about it in the comments!

Happy reading,

Jenny

Jenny Walicek

3 Comments
  • Jenny

    May 11, 2014 at 8:20 am Reply

    Awww, Lisa, we are sisters in sap, that’s for sure. I had the same experience reading that book to my third grade class — the kids offered to finish it — but no, like you, I wanted to see it through. I don’t think it’s at all selfish — it’s about wanting to work through the moment, let them see you vulnerable, let them see that written words can be that powerful… as you said, letting them see that it’s to be engaged with and internalized. That it’s GOOD to feel, to let a book get to you. I’m so glad my mom, and moms and teachers like you, get that — and see it through, over and over again. Your girls are very blessed to have you for a mom. Thanks so much for sharing this! xoxo

  • Blessed

    May 10, 2014 at 9:34 pm Reply

    p.s. This post was perfect for Mother’s Day. I hope you showed your mom! : )

  • Blessed

    May 10, 2014 at 9:33 pm Reply

    Oh I definitely cannot get through that one without crying. But then again, I am known to cry at all manner of stories, to which my kids (and our homeschool group!) can attest. In fact, the kids at our homeschool group have started to watch me when I read in the circle time, and the older girls are quick to jump in and offer to take over the story for me. While my snuffling, quavering voice and the necessary pausing to catch my tears does not help the story itself, it seems to clearly draw the kids into the emotional involvement of story-reading itself. That a story is something to be engaged with. That you can draw into yourself. That you can feel things about.

    Funny–only rarely do I acquiesce and let one of the girls take over the book. Because when I love a story, I want to finish it. I want to share it fully with the kids. I get so much pleasure in the reading–and I realize typing this that is selfish, that I should be glad to hand the books over. To share my reading. To encourage the other young narrators in the group, and give them a chance to pick up where I have left off and make the story theirs too.

    But that realization still does not mean I will. ; )

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