You Don’t Have to be Shakespeare to Tell a Bedtime Story
"...and when it got dark on the mountaintop, all the animal children got into their sleeping bags," I said, lying in the darkness, each arm cozily around a daughter — Sally, 5, and Marie, 8.
Sally chimed in, "Sally the Squirrel had rainbows and flowers on her pajamas." She always supplies fashion details for her squirrel self, which annoys her big sister.
Marie sneered, "And little pink dancing people on her sleeping bag and tiny silver guitars on her underpants."
"Nice," I said. "So anyway, Sally the Squirrel was having a bad dream."
"No she wasn't," said Sally the Human. "No bad dream."
I was trying to get the squirrel stirred up so she'd go tumbling down the mountain. "OK," I said. "Sally the Squirrel was squirming around trying to get comfortable, and she wiggled onto Tommy the Tiger who pushed her away, and she went rolling down the trail."
"No she didn't!" Sally said.
"Don't worry," I told Sally, "She won't get hurt or scared."
"Dad!" Marie protested. "She rolls down a mountain and she doesn't get hurt or scared?" A typical bind; Sally was out to protect her namesake, and Marie wanted some excitement — especially if it would ruffle the fur of the fancy little squirrel girl.
"No," I said, "the sleeping bag cushioned the squirrel from the rocks and trees along the trail, and as she tumbled down the mountain she laughed because it was a fun ride."
"Well, what will happen next?" asked Sally, negotiating.
"How about if friendly bears take care of her?" I asked, putting my hand over Marie's mouth as she tried to suggest that the friendly bears eat her.
Sally liked my friendly bear scenario and we resumed.
Most of my stories revolved around one classroom full of animal children that seemed to have one of each species. My plots? I stole them from books, TV shows, movies and even, God help me, the Bible. Each story was like a captured ship, and like a pirate captain, I'd send a crew of my animal characters aboard to sail it.
Marie (well-behaved in real life) liked stories with conflict and trouble. But Sally (full of mischief by day) didn't like anything too bad to happen. And if the unthinkable did occur, such as when Hopper the Misguided Kangaroo Boy poured yogurt down the pants of Emily the Pony, Sally had her squirrel self immediately put things right. And because I leaned heavily on that kind of cheap comedy, Sally the Squirrel kept in her locker a change of costume for every creature in the class from Dave the Dinosaur (triple-colossal) down to Teddy the Tick (double-micro-petite — with expandable waistband). She also stocked cleansers, solvents, bandages, lifejackets, ropes and insect repellent (despite Michael the Mosquito's allergic reactions).
As a storyteller, I was more hard-working than talented. But I persisted because these stories, shared in the dark, provided instant intimacy as the kids and I played inside each other's minds. And although I fell asleep in mid-story a few times, the kids never did.
Maybe they enjoyed my company. Or maybe they hung on, night after night, hoping the quality would improve. The girls took to phoning me at work with story ideas. Once I had to break off a conversation with my boss to hear Marie say, "How 'bout if Hopper puts Super-glue on the toilet seats?"
Such a heavy-duty shenanigan would be hard to sell to Sally, so that night I prefaced the story by telling her about the hydraulic cutting and prying apparatus that rescue squads use to extricate people from wrecked cars. And when Hopper's cruel prank had claimed a row of wriggling, weeping victims, I sent Sally the Squirrel into the lavatory equipped with The Jaws of Life.
Looking back from across the years, I'd say that night's story could've been my personal best, although Marie doesn't remember it.
She's 24 now and a writer of stories that are chock-full of conflict and pain. Sally at 21 is a nanny with three little kids to manage and protect. And Hopper the Misguided Kangaroo Boy? He sleeps, restlessly awaiting my grandchildren.
Rick can be reached at RickEpstein@yahoo.com.