TO DISTRACTED parents like me, no one is more appreciated than a grandparent who keeps an eye on the kids.
But gratitude, though expressed, always falls short of the real value of the gift.
I realized this when I had to take over storytelling time with my six-year-old after my mother went home.
During her visits, my mother slept with Juan. He did not like her taste in music; she didn’t want him fiddling around with her Walkman to eject Don Moen. When they finally compromised on Jack and the beanstalk replacing weepy organ tunes, I felt relieved I could focus back on my papers.
But passing by their room one night and overhearing another whispered retelling, I wondered why my mother, a wide reader, was stuck to this tale. Was it not a bit queer to send Juan dreaming about boys who didn’t listen to their mother and kidnapped chickens with fertility problems?
When I took her place in their bedtime ritual, I introduced Juan to the shoemaking couple who sewed clothes for elves. He allowed me to read the story, but only fell asleep after I gave in and capped the night with Jack’s misadventures.
On other nights, he put up with the mute princess spinning clothes to return her brother swans into their human form, but had no patience for the slowpoke tortoise and hare, and covered his ears when Peter Rabbit’s mom started another lecture.
And, invariably, every night, he fell asleep only after Jack hacked the beanstalk and the giant fell into the ground, emerging somewhere between China and Russia.
I threw in the towel when I realized that double-feature storytelling took twice as long. To get back to work, I just had to whistle for Jack, the young scalawag, to do his usual mayhem—gambling away the family cow, believing that crock of superstition about magic beans, coveting the giant’s gold-laying hen and golden harp—and my son would soon be snoozing like a baby, tired out by his own questions.
On nights when work was slack though, I listened to twinges of my conscience and attempted to reform Jack, even once changing his gender.
But Juan dismissed that Jack could ever have a twin sister who was also a champion climber (“girls don’t climb; they can’t show their panties”). Juan also believed that Jack wouldn’t be so dumb as to ask if he could borrow the giant’s golden harp (“the giant just said—you just read it, mommy—‘fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an English man!’ Would you ask permission from this guy?”).
Like my mother before me, I ended my torture when I simply just told the story, and listened. Because, really, the more important tale is Juan’s version.
Mama says Jack filled Juan with questions, night after night of retelling. She remembers one bedtime spent just answering his curiosity about how poor Jack really was: did Jack and his mother only have a bite to eat? Was he only saying that because they had vegetables, no pizza or chicken? And they really didn’t have a refrigerator? Where’s Jack’s father?
I thought fairy tales were anachronisms. Jack and his beanstalk turn parents like me into such worrywarts, too uptight to enjoy the tales that get our children dreaming. I think of child abuse whenever Jack’s mother sends off her young son, alone, to the market to sell their cow, without so much as a warning about “stranger danger.” What if that old fellow offered Jack more than magic beans?
Juan, though, thinks the world of Jack. My son is awed by someone just his age but somehow bigger and better than the giant in the story: hey, he does cool things for his mom.
I can’t say I totally agree with Juan. In storytelling, the real giants are grandparents, who prove, night after night, that listening is more important than all talk.
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