Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Maurice and Me
I heard about Maurice Sendak's death on the radio, driving to one of my therapies.  I try to find a positive frame of mind on these trips; sometimes that's easier than others.  NPR was chirping on and on about his life and work;  I heard none of it.  I was on the floor with The Cuters, everyone smelling newly bathed and feeling snuggle-worthy, watching anatomically correct Mickey fall through the dark and out of his clothes and into The Night Kitchen.

The naked little boy was surprising to the kids the first time they saw him.  After that, he was just Mickey.
And then there was Max, mighty, brave, beast-defying Max, who turned lemons into lemonade Where The Wild Things were.

Mom could send him to bed without supper but he didn't mind.  He took himself someplace wonderful and wasn't bothered when the beasties roared their terrible roars

Neither were we, leaning against Big Cuter's bunk beds, our own personal threesome, safe and secure and surrounded by picture books.

Big Cuter tells me that I remember those books more vividly than he does, but Little Cuter's voice caught in her throat when I called her this afternoon.  "Oh, are you writing about Maurice Sendak?"  His death had touched her heart.

How could her brother not remember those books?  "Didn't he have The Wild Things on his nightstand forever?"  Yes, of course she remembered them.  She remembered being scared, at first, "but wasn't that kind of the point?"  There was a budding English major sharing those evenings.

We roared our terrible roars and gnashed our terrible teeth and there was much tickling and grimacing and proud marching as little details - the long toenails and the striped shirt - wormed their way into our unconscious.  I can close my eyes and bring those toenails right up from my memory bank... and I can feel the kids snuggle in just a little bit closer as I turned the page. "They were more challenging than Eric Carle," the Little Cuter reminds me.

G'ma and Little Cuter and I trekked to Berkeley one Sunday afternoon when she was small and G'ma was still traveling.  Berkeley Repertory presented Brundibar, an opera performed by child inmates at Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. Tony Kushner wrote the libretto and Maurice Sendak is credited with "production design."  The opera was dark and frightening and ultimately uplifting; a little more challenging than Eric Carle, indeed.   But Sendak's design brought a warmth and childish fancifulness to the piece that took off just enough of the edge.

Maurice Sendak got it - kids like to be scared, but they need to feel safe.  He told Terri Gross, on NPR's Fresh Air, that he hated to autograph his books.  The kids were terrified of him, a short, old, Jewish guy," and even if they weren't, he was going to write in the book and wasn't that a no-no?  There were rules to be followed and consequences if one disobeyed.  There was love all round, but there was also proper form.  He understood stability - he lived with the same man for 50-some years - and loyalty and laughter and love.  A child of World War II, he lost half his family in Europe.  His books are informed by those losses as well as by the love of his family and friends.

In his later years, still mentally alert but physically frail,  he was cared for by the daughter of dear friends.  "She puts up with me,"  he told Terri Gross, with a hitch in his voice. 

I'll admit it.  I was a little bit teary, too. 


  1. My kids love Sendak's books too. I was so sad to read yesterday that he died. Don't watch the movie of Where the Wild Things Are. It's so uninspiring and boring. The book is so much better--but usually isn't that the case?

    My oldest daughter has started reading A Wrinkle in Time. That was one of my favorite series as a kid. It's funny how certain books remind us of special times in our lives.

    Happy Wednesday.

    Megan xxx

  2. Madeline L'Engle is also "more challenging than Eric Carle". Hope she has fun tessalating!


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