Gideon couldn’t resist the Shake Shack French fries available near gate 35 at JFK as we took off for leg 2 of the great adventure, even though they are not advertised as gluten-free. “I’ve eaten them plenty of times and it’s always been fine.” Danny and I looked at each other, and shrugged.
Several hours into our flight, Gideon confessed he was feeling sick. Then, sicker. He began to insist that I corral the flight attendant, who was in the middle of serving meals, and demand that she allow him to decamp from Economy and take up residence in First Class, because of his condition. He began to sweat. Then he was cold. He feared vomiting. Finally, I did manage to locate three contiguous unoccupied seats at the very back of the plane, approached a flight attendant, who kindly offered to move the backpacks and coats spread out there so that Gideon could lie down and rest.
Half an hour later, I went back to check on him, and Gideon asked me to sit with him. I settled into the aisle seat, and he snuggled his head into my lap. After a few minutes, he said, “Talk to me.”
Danny and Gideon have a default conversational setting. It serves multiple and various functions, depending upon what’s switched it on. Emotional connection. Injury salve, distraction when vials of blood are being drawn from a vein. Exercises in the art of analytical thinking. Strategical inquiry. Information sharing. Passing the time during this or that boring interlude during the day — long drive, waiting in a line. More. That setting could be called GESPN, Goldhagen Entertainment Sports Network. When switched on, GESPN is usually but not always tuned to football, though other sports, basketball, soccer, bicycle racing are also featured.
To extend the metaphor, the only network to which Gideon and I routinely turn might be called GEGAN –Goldhagen Entertainment Goofing Around Network. And in this situation, GEGAN was not appropriate. Flummoxed. I asked, “Do you want me to tell you a story?” Hoping the answer was no.
For years, I’ve considered myself a rotten storyteller. In college, for an assignment in creative writing I produced a short story, a revenge fantasy about a boyfriend who’d dumped me. My kindly, beloved writing professor, Sears Jayne, whom I would have done nearly anything to please, called me out on it. “It reads like a poison pen note from a jilted lover”, he wrote. Humiliated, I concluded that storytelling would never be my thing, and it never has been. Ask me to tell you a story and my mind becomes empty, a wasteland.
OK Sarah, deliver, I said to myself. Your son is sick.
First I told him a highly elaborated version of the Three Little Pigs which Gideon, surprisingly, had never heard. (What kind of mother was I, anyway, I thought, amused.) It began with Once Upon a Time, ended in the conventional way, and when I’d concluded it, I thought to myself, well, that should convince him that he needs no more stories from me.
“Tell me another,” Gideon said.
Oh, dear. OK, I said, give me a minute. Thinking. That first attempt was framed as a little kid’s story, and he liked it, so let’s stick with that. Images and vignettes flooded my mind until I settled on my childhood in Woodstock, Vermont.
“Once upon I time,” I began, buying myself time. “Once upon a time there was a little girl who had lots and lots of brothers and sisters,” I continued. What next? “Every summer, they lived in a big old house on top of a hill in a little town, where they all argued and played and wrestled and ignored one another, and listened in on each other’s phone conversations.
“The little girl, whose name was Sylvia, was much, much younger than her brothers and sisters. Sylvia was really, really little. And all her brothers and sisters had Big Personalities—one sister was The Brain, one brother was The Rebel, another The Comedian, and so on. They all took up a lot of space, with their Big Personalities. So Sylvia, who was young, often felt very, very small. Sometimes, she felt as though she was invisible.
“Every once in a while, the family’s Daddy would say, ‘How about going to the White Cottage for lunch?’ The White Cottage was a little outdoor diner sitting at the edge of a river, a bit outside of town.
“The White Cottage, the White Cottage!” the children yelled. “Let’s go to the White Cottage!” So they all piled into their Daddy’s light blue convertible with the top down (this was the days before safety and seat belts), and Daddy drove everyone to the White Cottage.
“Once they’d ordered their burgers and fries and milkshakes, one of Sylvia’s brothers turned to her and said, ‘Let’s go down to the river to play until the food comes.’ He took Sylvia by the hand and they scuttered on the dirt down the steep slope to the riverbank together. They took off their socks and sneakers to wade, because it was a very hot day. The Ottaqueechee River was shallow, old, and cool, with lots of soft, smooth rocks lining its bed. Sylvia and her brother waded in until the water came midway up their shins.
“The brother said, ‘Let’s build a house for the fish.’
“Sylvia laughed. ‘Fish don’t live in houses!’
“’They might,’ her brother said. ‘Maybe they do and we just don’t know it. They might just thank us for it.’ Sylvia knew that fish didn’t talk, either. But, since her brother was so much older than her, she began to question what she did and did not know about fish. Together they began gathering up stones.
“At the White Cottage, food always took a very long time to come, so they had time to gather up lots of stones.
“The brother said solemnly, ‘We must make it a big house, because the Ottaqueechee has a lot of fish.’ With great determination, they started constructing the house. ‘Fish houses must be round,’ the brother advised Sylvia. Slowly, they constructed a round wall, about five feet from side to side. ‘The upstream wall should be a lot lower than the downstream wall, so they can get in,’ the brother continued, so they did that too, as they worked.
“As they were finishing, Sylvia heard her father yell, ‘Kids! Food’s here!’ She and her brother stood up. Sylvia noticed that a couple of fish had, indeed, already entered their new home. They seemed happy, swimming around in it. The river flowed on.
“’Bye fish,’ Sylvia said.
“’Bye fish,’ her big brother said.
“The largest of all the fish swam up to the surface, and bobbed its head upwards.
“’Hey!’ The fish said in a loud, strong, voice. ‘Thanks for our house!’
“Sylvia and her brother looked at each other, and laughed. Then they scrambled back up the riverbank, and joined the family to eat lunch.”
Once I finished the story, I looked down at Gideon, who had tears in his eyes. “Is that you and Rog?” he asked.
Yes, I answered. Then he fell asleep.