About a year ago, an older man pulled up to our driveway while I was outside playing with my kids and said, “Excuse me. Do you know which house is Don W’s?”
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t,” I answered.
“I’m pretty sure he lives along here,” he went on. “I know his wife died a few years ago.”
“Hmmm….I’m just not sure,” I said.
“Do you have a phone book?” he asked.
Wait. Come to think if it, I did have one tucked away in the pantry.
The stranger walked down the drive with us and then waited outside while I found the book and looked up Don W, who, it turned out, lived across the street and three houses down.
The stranger went on his way, I’m assuming, with a stop at Don W’s.
“His wife died a few years ago…” he had said.
The discovery of a new detail, and things suddenly made a little more sense.
Don W’s substantial, ranch brick home had always looked sad. Not run down, just sad.
There were no flowers in the gardens. No decorations to mark the changing of the seasons or the coming of a holiday. The blinds were usually closed.
Don W (and his house), I concluded, must really miss his wife.
And I started to miss her, too. Every time I walked or drove by I missed her because I could feel her house missing her. And her husband missing her.
And then one day I actually got to meet Don W.
On a Thursday morning this last June I saw him at the end of his drive, tying balloons onto his mailbox advertising a garage sale. There were two women about my age (my age exactly I later found out) bustling about too—Don W’s daughters.
We were their first customers.
While we shopped, Don didn’t mention his wife (why would he?) but her presence was everywhere.
I could tell buy her collection of vases, planters, coffee mugs and tea cups that she and I would have been the most kindred of spirits. I bought several of each for just a few dollars.
Don W was just as I expected. Quiet and a bit slouched—from first impression, also a touch grouchy, although he was wearing a necklace of Mardi Gras beads. It was garage sale day!
Don W didn’t say much at first, but warmed up when the kids found an original Fischer-Price Little People house and sat down to play like they were in their own family room.
“They can have that,” he said. “We didn’t even put a price on it.”
“Oh, I can pay for it!” I insisted.
“No, no, it’s yours,” one of his daughters said.
The kids kept playing, which gave me more time to shop and talk. Knowing what I knew that they didn’t know I knew (Mrs. Don W had died) gave way to me commenting, excessively, on how lovely everything was.
“Oh! I just love these mugs!”
“Oh! I just love African violets, too!”
Maybe if I talked enough about how much I loved Mrs. Don Ws things somebody would talk to me about her…but they didn’t.
And then I found a box of books. They were books from the 80s, when Don Ws kids were kids (and I was, too).
“Do you read to your kids?” Don W asked me.
“Of course!” I said. “It’s…like…what-I-DO. I mean, we love reading books. I even write about reading books!”
He called out his daughter’s name.
“You want me to go get that other box of books?” she read her Dad’s mind.
“Yes,” Don W said.
He turned back to me. “Have you read Mr. Bear Squash-You-All Flat?” he asked.
“Nooo….I haven’t. Is it a good one”
“It’s a classic.”
Don W’ s daughter returned with another box of books.
But these weren’t more Little Critter and My Little Pony paperbacks.
These were Don W’s books.
The books of his childhood, and they smelled every bit as musty as their sixty years. Many were, literally, falling apart at the seams.
“Oh. I can’t take these,” I said. “They are your, books.”
“I just want kids to enjoy them,” he said. “If you’ll read them. Take them.”
“Well, where is that one? Mr. Bear? Squash-something?”
He looked through the box and pulled out MR. BEAR SQUASH-YOU-ALL-FLAT by Morrell Gipson, illustrated by Angela (Wonder Books, Inc., 1950).
Inside the cover a very young Don W must have used his, or his mother’s, little date stamper and stamped: “SEP 26 1952.”
I began to read out loud: “Once, in a certain part of the forest, there lived a very large and very stupid bear. His name was Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat. And this is why.”
Stupid bear? Stupid?
I laughed, looked over at Don W, who was waiting for me to continue, stopped laughing and kept reading. “He liked to squash things—he liked to sit on things and squash them flat!”
“This is…hilarious?” I ventured. “Are you sure you want us to have this? These? How about—we can borrow them?”
Don W did indeed want us to have his books. He wanted them to be read.
So he loaned us his wagon to haul home our new treasures—Little People, a pair of children’s binoculars, vases, mugs, planters and—books.
“Thank you,” I said.
Back on our driveway I reopened Mr. Bear. Did it really begin by calling the bear stupid?
I read on: “He especially liked to squash the houses of other animals, because he was too stupid to build a house for himself and had to live out of doors all the time.”
There were even more “stupids” and more squashing, until finally stupid Mr. Bear Squsah-You-All-Flat falls from a tree, gets hurts and scampers off into the woods never to be heard from again.
Although I have to admit I have not yet read Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat to my kids, who I am censoring from the word stupid, and whose eyes might, like mine do, get itchy from the mustiness of Mr. Bear’s pages.
But Don W wanted us to read his books, and we have found a few that we can, and one in particular, that we do, and that we love: The Golden Book Classic, I am Bunny, by Ole Risom, with illustrations by Richard Scarry, (Western Publishing Company, Inc., 1963).
Most of you likely already know the story that begins: “I am a bunny. My name is Nicolas.”
“Nicholas?” my daughter interrupts me, struck, as I am, by this specific detail in an otherwise abstract little story of the seasons.
I continue: “I live in a hollow tree.”
“In the spring, I like to pick flowers. I chase butterflies, and the butterflies chase me.”
Now my son interrupts:
“Bouncing! Like Tigger!”
Yes, Nicholas the bunny is bouncing up to try to catch a butterfly.
And he keeps bouncing, or sitting on a log by a pond, or blowing seeds off a dandelion to highlight some of the most beautiful things to do each season. Such as, “…keep[ing] dry under a toadstool” in the summer and “…watch[ing] the leaves falling from the trees” in the fall.
Swirls of Richard Scarry’s golden, yellow, orange, green, and brown leaves fall down around Nicolas—a page that perfectly invokes the crinkly, smoky, cool, crispness of autumn.
My kids point to everything, count everything, question everything in this book. Why, my daughter asks, on the page that reads, “In the summer, I like to lie in the sun and watch the birds,” is there no sun?
“I think it looks like it is going to rain!” she says.
As it has for so many generations before us, I am Bunny is quickly becoming essential reading in our house.
Thanks to Don W.
We often read it at breakfast time, while I sip tea or coffee out of Mrs. Don W’s mug with the picture of leaves, berries, nuts and a ladybug painted on it.
And while I glance up at the African violet I planted in Mrs. Don W’s African violet vase.
I don’t know how Mrs. Don W died. I don’t know if Don W is as sad as he seems. And I don’t know if I ever will…
But there must be a reason I picked Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat and I am Bunny to write about today and found yesterday’s date—61 years ago—stamped inside the cover.
There must be a reason why that stranger stopped here and asked for Don W., and why he mentioned to me that Don W’s wife had died.
Maybe…perhaps….hopefully one of the reasons why is because it is important, worthwhile—life changing—to share and to read good books.