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Coping

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Saturday, 28 October 2006 in Uncategorized

I have mentioned the symposium I was part of in New York a week ago today..."Fear and Fiction" ... and perhaps neglected to list the authors who were there: Mo Willems, Robie Harris, Martin Waddell, me, Pam Munoz Ryan, Neil Gaiman (who didn't make it and sent his speech to be read by someone else), Chris Crutcher, Jackie Woodson, and David Almond (who, similiarly, because of a family emergency had to send his words along to be read).

All of them are writers I admire, and many of them are people I know.

But I had never met Martin Waddell, who came in with his wife Rosaleen from northern Ireland for the conference, and who is a lovely man and a wonderful story-teller (and deserving recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal a couple of years ago)

Seeing him made me remember an experience I had a number of years ago, and which I was able to tell to him last week. I wrote about it at the time - ten years ago - and here is a copy of that essay (the child mentioned, my grandduaghter, had her 13th birthday yesterday):

Helping Children Cope

In April my daughter-in-law, Margret, and my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Nadine, who live in Germany, spent two weeks with me in the United States. In the style of German toddlers, Nadine calls me “Oma” in her first language, though she understands English as well and when pressed will acknowledge that “Grandma” is an acceptable second choice.

One evening during the second week, I volunteered to baby-sit so that Margret could have an evening with friends. It was not an easy decision for Margret. She had not left Nadine with a sitter for eleven months, not since the day last spring when my son, Nadine’s Papa, had kissed them both good-bye, gone off cheerfully on a routine trip, and never returned. Nadine was too young to understand about plane crashes or death or why her Papa never came back. She has stopped asking where he is.
That April evening, Margret said a casual “See you later” and slipped away with her friends while Nadine and I were busy playing a complicated game involving dolls going to the potty and receiving applause and rewards.

Later, when the sun had set and the dolls had become boring, Nadine realized that her mother was gone. I can only guess the painful fragments of memories that must have flooded back to her then. My reassurances were useless. Terrified, she ran to the closed front door, collapsed on a heap there on the floor, crying desperately and calling in German words that I couldn’t understand.

I knelt beside her, offering milk, toys, music: anything that might help. Finally, shuddering with sobs, she took my hand when I suggested books, and went with me to the stack of her favorites. She knew exactly which one she wanted; all the others were shoved aside and she went right to OWL BABIES.
Then she curled up on my lap, still whimpering, and watched the pages intently while I read the story of the owl babies who woke up in the night and realized that their mother was gone.

“I want my mommy,” the smallest owl baby said again and again. I could feel Nadine tense in my arms, sharing his plea.

Finally, of course, Owl Mother swooped home, her great wings wrapping the babies with comfort. Nadine touched that page with her small hand, tracing with her finger the outline of those wings. “Read it again,” she whispered, her cheeks still wet with tears.

My granddaughter and I read OWL BABIES over and over that night. When Nadine’s mother, just like Owl Mother, came home at last, the child was groggy with exhaustion, fear, and grief.

But a book had helped her through.

Few children, fortunately, suffer the loss of a parent. But childhood, especially early adolescence, is painful in so many other ways. I can remember, looking back 45-50 years, the feelings of loneliness, isolation, anger, failure. From what? I was an average kid with an intact and attentive family, good grades, nice clothes, straight teeth, all the things that we adults think should create a well-adjusted, happy kid. Nonetheless I sulked and suffered, was embarrassed by my mother, resented my little brother, worried about my schoolwork, found my face repulsive and my body grotesque, just like....

Yeah. Just like Anastasia.

“The rats. They were going to have a baby.” (ANASTASIA KRUPNIK)

My feelings, exactly, at least at Anastasia’s age. And so, too, apparently, the feelings of countless soon-to-be big sisters. One girl’s letter described her mother’s maternity clothes: “My mom has a shirt that says BABY with an arrow pointing to her stomach, and every time she wears it I feel real weird and sad...”

Reading a book with a sense of kinship doesn’t obliterate the feelings of jealousy (or weirdness or sadness). It simply reduces them to the category of normal, human, ordinary, and therefore bearable.
I sort through my own memories each time I begin a book about Anastasia and her friends. Maybe for me, too, it’s a way of coping retroactively.

I remember a crush on a camp counselor when I was a kid. For Anastasia, it became her gym teacher, Ms. Willoughby: “I love almost everything about Ms. Willoughby...” (ANASTASIA HAS THE ANSWERS) and was coupled with my own memories of being the least coordinated person in any sports arena, the last chosen for any school team: “‘I can’t do it,’” Anastasia said in a quavery voice. ‘I try, but I can’t do it...' "

Through the mail, in response, come the letters from all the young girls with a crush on a woman (“I thought I was the only person who ever felt that way and I was scared to tell anyone...”) and those who are klutzy in gym. “Anastasia is just like me..” the letters often say (or “feels like me” or “acts like me”).

When I was their age, dramatically self-pitying and turning to books for kinship and comfort, it was Jo March, Anne Shirley, and Mary Lennox, those misunderstood and introspective heroines, with whom I felt at home. I took them very seriously; they’d been written that way.

But I have come to believe that there is a role, too, for gentle laughter in alleviating misery.

I cringe, still, to remember a moment when I was twelve and my mother was preparing to accompany me to an evening event at my school. She emerged from her bedroom, dressed for the occasion. I looked at her in disgust and said, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?”

When she was eighty five, a year before she died, I apologized to her for that moment. She chuckled, and said that at twelve she had felt exactly the same way about her mother.

I passed the memory along to readers. Anastasia had just turned thirteen. “I don’t even like to walk beside you on the street because you don’t look like a regular mother...” (ANASTASIA, ASK YOUR ANALYST) Readers recognized themselves, and told me so, and laughed. (I hope their mothers did, as well.)

I read, once, an interview with Canadian author Robertson Davies, in which he said this about the use of humor: “It’s simply a matter of sending the dogs in a different direction.”

Dogs? Yes. I know those dogs. They’re those urgent, growling companions that go with you when you try to confront something scary. They’re like the hounds that run eagerly beside Jody Baxter’s father when he tracks the huge bear in the swamp of THE YEARLING.

Sometimes the time is not right. The bear is too ominous, too savage, and your heart just isn’t in the hunt or brave enough for the battle.

So you send the dogs in a different direction. You veer away from the bear, at least today, by taking a side trip into laughter.

That, too, is a way of coping.


In 1985 my publishers received a letter which they forwarded to me. It had come from the father of a boy who had died at the age of seventeen; his letter described how they had given a copy of my book A SUMMER TO DIE to their surviving child, a fourteen year old girl, in hopes that it would help her cope with the loss.

He went on to say that their daughter, three months later, had copied a paragraph from the book, framed it, and given it to her parents as a Christmas gift.

The paragraph that she gave them was this:

“Time goes on, and your life is still there, and you have to live it. After a while you remember the good things more often than the bad. Then, gradually, the empty silent parts of you fill up with sounds of talking and laughter again, and the jagged edges of sadness are softened by memories.”

Eleven years later, sorting through papers, preparing to move to a new house, I came upon the letter from that father. I wondered where he is, how he is, and hoped that memories have softened his sadness. I read his letter several times, and my own quoted words as well, feeling a kinship to him, and to his family, now that I too have lost a son.

It was curiously reassuring, being with them again, for that moment. It was the feeling that others have made this fearsome journey and survived.

It was what my little granddaughter must have felt as she traced the returning Owl Mother’s wings with her tiny hand and whispered to me that she needed to hear it one more time.

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