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Tell Me a Story

August 18, 2010

We have always read to Elisio, since before he could talk.

“I get three because I’m three,” he says every night after we brush teeth and he snuggles down into his Rayo McQueen racing car bed amongst at least a dozen of his cuddly toys. We pick up a few selections from the stack of library books on the floor and let him choose. Last night’s reading included a firefighting dragon, a gentleman monkey and his current personal favorite, “You Can’t Go to School Naked.” I’m afraid he may be entering a gross-out phase.

Evidence of this could be found this morning on the sidewalk on the way to the car.

“Elisio! Don’t step…” I said, but he did it anyway, landing his blue sneaker right on top of a small remnant of doggie poo.
“Ewwwwwww,” he said, but unlike the grimace I was wearing, his face broke out into a giant grin.
“Disgusting!” I said, which only made him laugh. “Go wipe your foot in the grass.”
He did, and for the life of me the whole scene reminded me of afternoons in our backyard as a kid and Chopper, nose in the air staring straight at me, scratching up the grass with his hind legs after he finished his business.

“I’m going to tell Papa,” Elisio said, running ahead of me to the corner.
“Wait,” I said, reaching out my hand to hold his so we could cross the street.
“Papa!” he started screaming. “I got dog poo…”
“Shhh!” I said, looking around for neighbors who might be headed to work or out walking their dogs.
“Okay, Mommy,” he whispered. “I’m keeping my voice down.”

We made it to the car, where Eduardo was already inside starting it up and turning on the cd of kid songs from Elisio’s music class and ramping up the ac.

“Papa,” he started yelling again, banging on the window while Eduardo pretended to be driving away. “I got dog poo on my sneaker!”

I just shook my head, put my coffee cup on top of the car and opened the door to settle Elisio into his car seat.

“I heard, Papi,” Eduardo said while the cd player sang “Toes toesy toes toes tooooooeees toes toes.”

I walked around and got in the backseat of the car, sitting next to my son on my way to the train station.

“Tell me a story, Papa,” Elisio requested. We were a little surprised because at three it is all about routine, and Elisio has a maniacal sense of the order of when things happen. We tell him stories at bedtime, not in the morning, one final story invented each night as we sit beside him after we turn off the light.
“Okay,” Eduardo said, because he’s usually the one to tell the stories. It’s a tradition that started with a family of caterpillars that occupied our kitchen in our house in Miami, spawning a series of tales about Elisio and his friend the baby caterpillar. I’ve often thought of stealthily turning on the audio recorder on my iPhone to capture them and turn them into award winning children’s books and a happy retirement fund for our old age.

It’s actually a tradition that goes back further, to when Eduardo and I first got together. Even in those early weeks as we trundled toward engagement, we believed we were nearing the end of telling each other the stories of our lives and onto the part where we were writing the story of our lives together. We’d lie in bed in amidst the magic of having discovered each other, two writers writing our way into our careers of different sorts of words, and I’d say, “Tell me a story.”

“About what?” he’d ask, and I’d grab details from the air, selecting the first interesting images that floated through my mind to seed the story he’d write for me with his deep, sleepy voice.

And it’s the same question he asked of our son in the rearview mirror, the same one he always asks at night in the dark, “About what?” he asked.

“I want a gross one,” Elisio responded, and for a moment I don’t recognize him. Here is the kid who reaches his hands up and wipes them on my pants when he falls down on a trail in the woods. Here is the kid who always asks for a napkin, wipes off the spaghetti sauce from his fork before he’ll spear a strawberry at desert – that is if he doesn’t demand a new one.

So Eduardo starts in on a story, and as we pull away from the curb, me snapping in the buckle of my seatbelt, Elisio’s hands to his smiling mouth in gross-out expectation, I’m surprised because it’s a story I haven’t heard. It is a happy one from when his Colombian mom used to walk him down the street from their apartment to school, and a gross one meeting all of Elisio’s criteria, involving stepping in a pile of dog poo all his own and tracking it in stinky footprints across the white tile floor of his class at school.

I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder at the tenderness he describes as his mom kisses his cheek on the steps, at his vulnerability and embarassment as his teacher shouts, “Oh, no!” across a crowded room. From the look on his face the three-year-old little gets all of this, and as soon as the story is done, he’s asking for more.

“You tell me a story,” he says, looking at me, “Not a dog poop one.”
“Okay,” I say, and I pause, wondering what kind of story might surprise him, what kind of true story might reveal to him a bit of me.

“How about a funny one?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and I think of my earlier memory of Chopper and hope a story about my dog might help allay his fear of dogs the same way his dad’s stories of the caterpillar family helped him stop being afraid of our visitors on the ceiling.

I start with a description of Chopper, jutting out my lower jaw and using my two index fingers up against my chin for teeth. “When I was a little girl,” I say, my words compressed by the position of my mouth, “I had this dog. His favorite thing to eat was cheese.”

I look up to see Eduardo watching me in the mirror. He’s heard this story before.

“Chopper loved cheese sooooo much, that if he just heard us open the refrigerator door, he’d come running into the kitchen, his little nails going clack-clack-clack like this,” I say, miming little squirelly scratches on the white tile floor with my hands.

Elisio is into the story, I can tell. He laughs at my gestures, loves that the dog wants cheese. I go on.

“One day,” I say, “Chopper and I were playing in the living room and he had eaten too much cheese. He had to go potty. Since he was a dog, his potty was in the backyard.” Now normally at this point, Elisio would stop me with a question, like “Why?” but he didn’t. He just sat there waiting for what came next.

Eduardo started to laugh, probably because this story was still and again about dog poo, but maybe because it was funnier, different somehow as I was telling it not to explain my life to him but to entertain our son, for the first time drawing on real stories the way I do in my writing to take us all to a place called home.

The story went on, and at its climax I clapped my hands – smack! – and both boys jumped as I delivered the moment when Choppper slammed his squished little face into the sliding glass door my mom had just cleaned to an invisibile shine.

“Was Chopper okay? Did he get to go potty?” Eduardo asked, and I said yes, delivering the end of the story where the dog licked my face and I opened the door to let him outside.

“Tell it again!” Elisio said, laughing with his voice, his cheeks, his eyes, and I think it was the proudest moment in my newly begun memoirist life. I’d figured it out: how to tell a good true story, one with a beginning, a middle, an end. I looked over at my son and happily obliged.

I told the story again as we turned a corner, let Elisio supply the details about Chopper’s favorite food as we pulled into the drive at the train station, let him explain the smack as the dog smashed into the streak-free window, let him tell me Chopper licked me and everything was okay.

“Tell it again,” he said as I gathered my bag and opened the door at the train station, knowing of course that for now there wasn’t time.

“You tell me a story,” I thought I heard Eduardo say to him as I closed the door after saying “I love you” to them both.

“Okay,” I imagine my son saying to his father’s face in the rearview mirror as they drive away. And so it begins, I think, this telling the stories of our lives that we all do at bedtime and in blog posts, every day and all the time.

(This bumper sticker I saw this morning is just gross enough that I’m pretty sure Elisio would absolutely love it.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2010 10:22 am

    I think we sometimes fear revealing ourselves to our children. We fear it will somehow minimize our authority. What we fail to remember is that these revelations about ourselves can reinforce our humanity.

    I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, it is preferable to see our superiors as human. It helps reinforce the respect and perhaps a sense of kinship.

    Cherish the memories and record the stories. If not for the money, for the history and legacy.

  2. Tiffany permalink
    August 19, 2010 9:56 am

    I truly enjoyed your well-woven tale. Treasure each moment!

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