When I was young, on Sunday nights at 6 p.m. on CBC (channel 5, cable 6 in Toronto), The Wonderful World of Disney would sometimes play a full-length movie, much to the delight of thousands of Canadian children. Escape from Witch Mountain, Herby The Love Bug, you know, well-loved Disney fare. Remember, this was before the days when every household had a VHS player and a video store rental membership, or even just cable. CBC was available to anyone with a t.v., rabbit ears and a working knob dial that turned to change channels.
It was on one of those Sunday evenings, that I remember seeing the animated full-feature movie, Dumbo for the first time. My mother watched it with me and (spoiler alert) when baby Dumbo went to see his mother in elephant jail and she pushed her trunk out between her cell bars to reach out to stroke and rock him gently, my mother lost it. I was shocked by her tears, and I remember laughing at her for being so silly. It was just a cartoon! I remember her starting to laugh too and she was still dabbing her eyes when she tried to explain to me that having a baby (me) had turned her into a weepy mess and just the idea of that poor baby elephant being separated from his mummy was just about the sadness thing ever and it just killed her every time she saw it. I listened without really understanding and eventually just shrugged and turned back to watch the rest of the film. But that moment stayed with me.
My mornings start at 5:30a.m. I put my first small on the bus at 6:45 a.m. and my last on the bus at 8:40 a.m. Between the third and fourth departure, there is approximately 20 minutes. I have been using that time to read to small number four. We usually read a chapter from a book that is just for her (currently Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton), as the books we read at dinner time or bedtime are of interest to all four of them. This morning though we could not find her book in any of the usual places. So, rather than waste more our time looking, she (wisely and practically) suggested that we read her school library book about elephants. Great, we love elephants! Except that it was a book based on the true story of three female elephants (two born in the wild and one born in captivity) who were slowly dying at the Toronto Zoo and were (finally) allowed to go to a sanctuary in California in 2013. Remembering Dumbo, I understood my challenge almost at once.
I made it through the entire book, not a tear in sight. No lip-biting or quivering voice. Until the last sentence.
At the end of the story were a few pages about elephants, their statistics, needs, health and habits. The last few paragraphs were specifically about one of the elephants in the story who was relocated to California with her two friends. While she showed improvements at the sanctuary, it was, sadly, too late for her health to improve enough. She was 46 when she died (around mid-life) and that last bit, about how happy the author was that she (the elephant) was at least able to enjoy her last couple of years of captivity living comfortably, happily and closer to her natural environment broke me. I couldn’t make it through the sentence. Tears spilled over and my voice cracked. I had to stop reading. In that moment, I became my mother.
I did finally pull it together and finish the last seven or so words, and wiping my tears away looked at my girl and said “ah then, what a lovely story!” And while she looked a bit taken aback, she simply gave me a hug and nodded in agreement, putting the library book in her backpack to return to school.
I love that we have this precious time in the mornings together, a quiet moment without the chaos of our ‘real’ lives. I love that she loves animals, big and small, and that she actively seeks out opportunities to learn more about them. I love that she wants to include me in her learning. I love that rather than laughing at me (as I did to my mother), she sat quietly and cuddled in, understanding that it was genuine empathy and caring for that poor elephant and the tragedy of her life circumstances that was the cause of my tears and not merely silliness.
I have always read to my children and I have also always advocated for others to do the same. Aside from encouraging literacy (very important), it creates these precious moments of connection between a parent and child, whether that connection is based in empathy, humour or excitement stirred up by the story being read.
If you like elephants, or you like crying in front of your children, or you like crying while reading about elephants to your bewildered children, here is a link to the book on Amazon.ca. The story itself is fine and the illustrations are lovely. It’s that last page you need to look out for.
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