Fantastic Mr. Fox Lives in The Secret Garden by Brittany Butler
“Two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way – or always to have it.”
–Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
I was 7. She was nearly 30.
I remember how wild her hair was; naturally curly and often untamed after her shifts at the bar. Sometimes she brushed her chilled fingers from the poorly heated printing company against my warm, little hands. The jobs smear together in my mind. She was always working and I was young.
I remember my favorite part of her: her teeth, all accounted for and on full display when she smiled. I remember her always busy, slightly stressed but patient, always patient with me. She was so much more patient with me than she would give herself credit for. She was so much more patient with me than I am with my sons now.
She would sit next to me. Sometimes lay with me. Often she moved around in a chair next to my solid, white daybed. Each of the four corners was adorned with an iridescent ceramic ornament, elegantly embellished with rose-colored flowers. This bed was made for that book that she read. I often stared at them, willing those buds to whisk me off to Mary’s secret garden in my dreams, so that I could live out the story my mother read to me nightly. I’d imagine all the rooms of the manor and all the places I could hide. I’d wish that we had a maid so Mom didn’t have to work so hard, so many hours, so much stress. Then I’d laugh remembering the voices she made sounding out that slang. She was the worst Martha but she tried. I remember clearly thinking, if she didn’t do that voice, I’d never understand the words that Martha, the maidservant slung.
“Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it – and call it what tha’ likes. Tha’ wert singin’ to it when I come into t’ garden.”
She’s very much alive and with my boys now at the childhood home I grew up in. They are just a mile away and that’s how we like it. Their home is my children’s second home; their “place in the city” as we live in the suburbs of Chicago and they are in the real thing. She’s their grandmother, their “Grandmeesch.” She’s a good’n that woman, that mother of mine.
My oldest is 5 now and in kindergarten. When his baby brother was born, he was nearly 3. I was 30.
He was underwhelmed by the lack of attention he received from everyone, especially his mother: Me. I was losing patience daily with this child when he acted out accordingly. I had heard that little boys thrived with time to be Mom’s only baby or they will regress. I knew I needed to show him patience, but I had so little to spare with the sleepless newborn nights that were upon us.
How did our mothers do this? How did my mom do this? Show patience. Give attention. I can show patience and give attention but there had to be some way to make it stick with him so he’d be unstuck from my side. It was a compromise created from the one-sided magical memories of my own childhood. I decided on a plan to show him patience and give him attention. We would begin reading chapter books aloud, alone in his room. Together we found Fantastic Mr. Fox sitting with the untouched hardcovers, high up on the closet shelf. I’d forgotten they were there since storing them away from his indelicate ripping hands years earlier.
“I think I have this thing where everybody has to think I’m the greatest. And if they aren’t completely knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don’t feel good about myself.”
– Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox
A big book for a big brother in a big boy bed that was just big enough to accommodate us both. Every night one chapter read and one-on-one time together. Words pointed out with care by me and innocent fingers finding well-illustrated wonderfulness. Finally, more tears were swept away from laughter than from fear of Mommy forgetting him. Our routine became like clockwork: bath, bed, bonding with books, laughing over limbs lost.
“‘It will never grow again,’ said Mr. Fox. ‘I shall be tail-less fro the rest of my life.’ He looked very glum.”
– Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox
I wonder if he will remember this somewhere down the road. I wonder if this will be the book that implants itself in the magical memories of his childhood. Will he think of my long, auburn “pincess” hair that he twirls through his fingers? Will he even have a favorite feature of mine? Will he think of this time that I taught him this especially special virtue? Will I even still be alive, and hopefully close by, reliving my parenting years with his young?
I can’t write his future just as I can’t write my own. What my mother gave me was a present to be re-gifted in my present. Mothers can show patience and give attention with books. Here I sit and can sentimentally stitch these two squares to my memory quilt: Fantastic Mr. Fox lives inside The Secret Garden of my heart. But will he have the same fondness for us sharing stories? Will Mr. Fox and his missing tail stick in his mind or have Harold and the Purple Crayon drawn over him already? Perhaps Jack and Annie trampled them with their Magic Tree House adventures? Or worse, will Daddy’s book-free tales of Middle Earth and galaxies far, far away, trump my patient efforts?
I don’t know. I have to accept that the future is out of my hands and his story could be missing these precious pages we shared together. Whatever childhood memories he chooses to write in his heart for his own story are fine with me. I’ll just keep trying to supplement the best material and show as much patience as I can, when I can, for as long as I can. My son’s story will be a best-seller regardless of what he remembers. I just know it…
Brittany Butler is a teacher in the south suburbs of Chicago. After nearly ten years of teaching gifted and writing enrichment in the middle grades, she is starting fresh this year as a third grade teacher. Additionally she is the mother of two young boys, both of whom demand nightly read-alouds along with cuddles and improvised nursery rhymes. She whole-heartedly believes that reading is a precious gift shared generation to generation. She writes every Monday about her reading life and also her alliterated life at www.abitofanalliterate.com