School is back in session bringing with in many emotions, especially for parents. Maybe some of you have seen the video of the mom in Massachusetts dancing to “Bye, Bye, Bye,” as the school bus takes off on the first day of school her two children aboard. Funny and so relatable. But I’ll bet you a crispy funnel cake there is another thought lurking way at the back of her mind. The one that says there will be a day when the school bus comes no more. Keep reading.
No one, in my opinion, puts the delights of childhood into our heads more poignantly than Robert Louis Stevenson. His book of poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses, gives us a look back at our formative years in a way that makes us sigh and nod or chuckle. My mother used to quote his shorter poems to us. I can still hear her gently saying . . .
“When I was down beside the sea, a wooden spade they gave to me to dig the sandy shore . . . “
She’d continue with as many of the words as she could remember and it arrested our attention for a few moments as they burned into our little gray cells. My favorite Stevenson poem begins with this line, “How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue . . .” Sound familiar? I hope so. I now quote it to my grandchildren.
Then, one day, Mom’s tutelage on the poems of Stevenson came sailing at me from the past when I spotted a paperback copy of the aforementioned book at a tag sale. I snatched it faster than a hound dog goes after a bit of floor bacon. I zoomed to the cashier clutching it to my chest unable to believe anyone would part with such a gem. I plopped down my dollar and later sat with it in hand marveling at the memories it pulled. My little kid self was delighted.
The first poem speaks to a child’s dismay at having to go to bed while it is still light out. Bed in Summer is one that makes me chuckle. It’s exactly how I felt when it was still light at eight o’clock and mom insisted I could fall asleep with the sun still shining. In the middle of the book there’s a rhyme titled, “Unseen Playmate,” where Stevenson, with understanding, speaks of children who are “happy and lonely and good,” and then the “Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.” My youngest son had an imaginary friend. It grieves me to think he was once that lonely.
Other poems are completely lighthearted. He speaks of speeding trains, a marvel in the late 1800’s, and pirate adventures, discovering secret places in the woods, and leading the charge while playing soldier. All the things that childhood imagines are on stage in this little book.
But then . . .
Comes the last page and like any good read something in us cringes. The story is over. It’s been read and enjoyed and pondered. Sometimes I won’t even read Stevenson’s last poem in his garden of verses. It’s that bit about saying goodbye forever. It hurts a little or maybe a lot depending on the path of your own childhood. He puts it like this in To Any Reader.
As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So, you may see, if you will look,
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call,
That child to hear you. He intent,
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear, he will not look.
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air,
That lingers in the garden there.
Kids. They run, they play, they slip away beyond the borders of childhood. Soon they’ll take their turn knocking on the glass and gazing out at what exits only in the air. A place we can remember but never return to. Bye, bye, bye.
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