It's a Thursday afternoon in late September. Autumn arrived an hour ago, very suddenly, the way it does sometimes. I have finally persuaded little Ariana Wagner, 4 years old, all curls and blue eyes and peach skin, to put on a cardigan before we stroll to the library branch two blocks west of her 17th floor apartment overlooking Third Avenue. She has agreed to a cream cashmere sweater with pearl buttons down the front and lace at the cuffs. We place it over her pink fairy princess dress and ride down to the enormous lobby. To the left of the concierge desk is a swimming pool and an exercise room. To the right is a large closet in which to hold the countless packages that arrive daily for the residents of the luxury high rise.
The Wagners are slumming it here. They are renting while their Fifth Avenue home is under renovation and it won't be ready until the first of December. Adelina sighs when she tells me of the struggles of squeezing two girls into one bedroom and having only two bathrooms and no powder room for the entirety of Autumn. I nod sympathetically as she complains that their espresso maker won't fit on the marble kitchen counter. I wonder if a few laps in the swimming pool would help her unwind.
We walk across 96th Street and a sharp wind picks up. It plays with Ariana's curls as she runs ahead of me. She stops to grab a small broken tree branch on the sidewalk that must have snapped in the wind and fallen to the ground. Stick in hand, she dances toward our destination, looking every inch a bohemian Tasha Tudor illustration. She is adorned by the emblems of youth: sticks, tutus, windblown disarray and an easy lack of self-awareness that cloaks her like a magic veil bestowed for a precious few years.
She generates a lot of admiring stares and I bristle protectively as a woman calls out to tell her how pretty her dress is. (Now that I have my own little girl, I know even more the invasive dagger a shouted compliment can be to a young child, a private moment shattered can feel like anything but goodwill.) Ariana is a wood nymph skipping toward the public library.
Once there, we choose the Story of Babar and she settles into my lap. Should I skip the part about the hunter shooting Babar's mother? Should I shatter her East Side fortress with a fusillade of bullets? I decide to read the story as is.
Children's eyes actually do widen. When Ariana stares at the picture of Babar's fallen mother, her body wet with tears from her baby elephant's eyes, I realize I have broken our trust. She asks me to read that part of the story again, a sure sign I have erred mightily. She asks me for a third reading, and trying to repair the damage to her psyche, I insist we move ahead to the next part of the story, in which Babar runs off to the "city" and makes an almost comically speedy recovery as he's doted on by a little old lady with deep pockets and a fondness for elephants.
Both Ariana and I are relieved to be ensconced in Babar's new cosmopolitan life. He has a bathtub, a bed, and a wardrobe quite literally fit for an elephant. He travels to the countryside in his own red sports car. Babar has landed in a nest of material comforts and evenings with wealthy intellectuals, and in addition to the companionship of his sugar mama his days are filled with self-improvement and the finer things.
Ariana asks to go back to the scene with the hunter. I oblige. I tell her elephants are sometimes shot by heartless, bad people but that no elephants will ever be shot on the Upper East Side. I tell her that her mommy will be home at five when we return and that while I make dinner she will tell her own mother about her day. This seems to quiet her obsessive anxiety and we close the book. I gently pry it out of her hands.
Midway through the story, Babar does remember his mother and cries again over her loss. He decides to return to the land of the elephants: sentiment wins the day (although he brings along the fancy sports car and all the other material treasures.)
Jean de Brunhoff wrote this story many years ago, first reciting little episodes to his children at bedtime. It is a dated book, an odd book with an almost nonsensical story line that picture books today usually lack. He never considered that a child ought to be shielded from the reality of hunters. Some have accused the story of imperialist overtones, even white supremacy, but I think it is merely a fanciful, rambling bedtime tale spun in a different, less enlightened era. At any rate, it is a story about an elephant who loses his mother and cannot rid himself of grief despite the palace in which he finds himself recovering.
Ariana was troubled by Babar's grief far more than she was interested in his material acquisitions. I thought about her dozens of Madison Avenue sweaters and dresses and tutus and boxes upon boxes of games and dolls and french flash cards and blocks of all color and material and the many expensive "enrichment classes" she attended each week and I thought of Nightingale Bamford waiting to devour the childlike sweetness of her mind that right now was feeling for the baby elephant and shocked by his plight.
I wondered how many years of living among closets stacked to the brim with cashmere jackets and American Girl dolls and baby mink coats it would take to shift her heart's attention from Babar's grief to his fancy red car? At some moment I knew it would happen -- her soul would skip away like a dried leaf rustling in the suddenly sharp Autumnal wind. No cashmere sweater can warm a body from whom a soul has departed.
I hug Ariana in the library. I don't know how many such moments with her remain.
|An East Side luxury high rise just off the park.|