Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Where The Wild Sendak Is

The internet has exploded with Wild Things today, but that's not my family's touchstone. For whatever reason -- either because the fundamental truth of Where The Wild Things Are is that our unmanageable emotions sometimes take us away from those we love most, and it's up to us to tame them and find our way home all alone, or just because it's got monsters in it -- Penny rejected the universal favorite after a brief and intense initial romance.

Instead, the one she requests most is the one where the main character remains safely home throughout his journey, In The Night Kitchen. The more I read it, the more I'm inclined to agree. Of course I will always adore Wild Things. I have faith that when Penny's older, she'll imagine her room sprouting into sylvan splendor, door jambs growing bark and leaves weighing down boughs suddenly spreading across the ceiling until there is no room, only forest, dark and foreign and safely far away. And whether or not she can handle the story, she still loves to sing our Rumpus Song, a chanted rhyme I came up with because there are no words in the wild rumpus section, and we wanted something to do besides yell "Yay! Rumpus! Woo-hoo! The rumpus! Yippee!" for six pages. You're welcome to borrow it. It goes like this:

Rumpus, Rumpus, staring at the moon
Rumpus, Rumpus, don't end too soon (turn page)
Rumpus, Rumpus, swinging in the trees
Rumpus, Rumpus, doing as we please (turn page)
Rumpus, Rumpus, stamping on the ground
Rumpus, Rumpus, Wild Things all around.

I got a video of Penny singing it for you, but missed the first line and didn't have time to re-record before ballet class.

But In The Night Kitchen is even richer, in many ways. I love the way I can pore over each page, reading the names of the products and wondering which are real and which are friends of Sendak's. Imagining the flavor of tas-t-kaks. Finding, with Penelope, the items we recognize from our own kitchen: the whisk, the beaters, the wooden spoon. The beautiful details of a Brooklyn brownstone pictured as Mickey falls through his dream: a chandelier, lace curtains, dark-wood moulding. And oh, the absolute delight when Penny sees a picture of Oliver Hardy out of context and shrieks "Mama! MAMA! The baker from In the Night Kitchen!"

And we didn't have to make up a chant for this book. Rather than letting the images do the talking, Sendak let the words themselves expand to fill entire pages. The first time Penny and I read this at the library, I recited the familiar words: "Milk in the batter, milk in the batter, stir it, scrape it, make it, bake it," and paused, wondering if I was actually hearing the echo of the words back through my own childhood. But no, the sound was coming from the mom a few tables over, who couldn't help joining in the chant even though she was ostensibly reading Thomas the Tank Engine to her son. It's that familiar. It's that addictive. "I'm not the milk and the milk's not me! I'm MICKEY!"

Of course the horrible irony is that Penny is at the age to reject Wild Things out of fear of the feelings she is learning to control, and I am at the age to reject Night Kitchen out of fear of the news Sendak was repressing when he came up with the images. I always felt there was something unsettling and hidden about the yellow star on the box of salt, about the oven, about the Oliver Hardy moustache, and the Sendak exhibit at my beloved Contemporary Jewish Museum confirmed it: the childhood Sendak overheard news of World War II, understanding almost none of it, and Mickey is that childhood self making sense of the images and scraps of information he couldn't comprehend.

None of us can comprehend it. That's why the book holds such power. That's why I can't stop looking through it even as I want to fling it across the room.

I generally wrinkle my nose at public keening over a celebrity death (last week's mourning of MCA of the Beastie Boys notwithstanding). In general, I hold that if someone lived a good long life, and was clearly tired and ready to go as I believe Sendak was, it's churlish of me to demand that they stay here just out of some distant affection and desire to have them on the same earthly plane. But oh, this stings. I harbored the fantasy that Penny and Abby and I would sing the Rumpus song to Sendak one day. That I would get to tell him yes, I agree, the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers movie of Wild Things is not for children, and it's perfect, and I watch it over and over, without a kid in sight. That I would thank him for the window into my own childhood soul, and the reminder to peer through his books into my kids' souls, so that I don't forget that their fear is real, and that it's okay.

But of course, that old curmudgeon never wanted to hear that from us parents. We pissed him off, he was impatient with us, and who can blame him. He wanted to be left alone and to see his partner Eugene again. And now he's done it, sailed away over a year and a day, and he won't be coming back.

And that's why, thanks to Maurice, we have cake every morning. Shema.

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