Some people stay with you. The girl in my fourth grade class who carried a purse, wore high heels and an occasional swipe of lip gloss. The skater boy with the hair in his eyes who in 7th grade made me snort with laughter all the way through my first public speaking assignment. People I never saw again, but who became part of my childhood nostalgia. Likewise, as an adult, when all things start to lean toward permanence there have been people who I thought would be fixtures but who turned out to be fleeting, inspiring a grown-up nostalgia for the smells and ambiance of early adulthood that I didn’t realize was possible.
In those early adult years before I was a writer or a wife or a mother, I was a children’s book editor, a job that any 20-something formerly obsessive reader of E.B. White and Paula Danziger would literally walk through fire for. And by and large it lived up to the hype. I had after all, only recently worked in Human Resources at Goldman Sachs where neither I, nor my creative juices had exactly gotten going. And now, I was getting to work on beautiful books with beautiful people—some authors, some illustrators, but also agents, and production editors and designers and marketers and publicists and you get the idea. Wonderful and creative and committed people at every turn.
I would eventually be laid off, sent off to have babies and become the writer I actually meant to be in the first place. But there was one acquisition—one project, one person—that stayed with me from those days, and who to this day, makes me feel like I had landed exactly in the right place at the right time even if for a short burst.
Sitting across from Elisha Cooper at Spring Street Natural in 2003—the Soho hot spot where I had learned how to pronounce quinoa correctly—I thought, and likely even said to his face, that this guy was the real deal. This guy with his effortless watercolors, his poetic point of view, his dry humor, his smiling eyes—he was real and I felt lucky that he, had chosen us to publish his next couple of picture books.
His book Magic Thinks Big, acquired by a lucky editor before me–about an imaginative cat who, in his mind, takes a ride across the lake on the back of a moose and who feasts on salmon and has a picnic with some bears–would soon become the punctuation of my own daughter’s days. It is a sleepy book that proved perfect for one bedtime after another. The book Elisha and I would work on together was similarly sleepy but entirely literal and poetic, a farewell to the day—as a father walks his child down the street toward the water saying goodnight to the people and the creatures and the objects that have all done their hard day’s work—baking if you’re a baker, wheel-barrowing if you are a gardener, hustling across telephone wires if you’re a squirrel.
When Booklist suggested in a starred review that it was reminiscent of Goodnight Moon, I thought back to the quinoa lunch with Elisha and how he had said that very day that this book was going to be just that, a modern, urban take on Goodnight Moon. Like Magic, Elisha thought big.
Many years later, long after the layoff and even longer after I had two children and something of a writing career, leaving the city and so the buzz of children’s publishing for a town, as I like to say, with a Main Street and a parade—I ran into Elisha right here in my beloved library, on my beloved Main Street. We sat next to each other at a table with our little name cards propped up in front of us and kids came to meet us both but ended up swooning over Elisha’s personalized illustrations, lining up to see if this magical guy could figure out if they were more of a cat or a moose person.
In the in between spaces, Elisha and I caught up and I noted that although his hair had greyed, his eyes had remained rather lit up. And this was especially so when he told me about his new book—not a picture book at all—a memoir, a collection of vignettes that tell the story of his daughter’s cancer diagnosis and what it meant for him as a father, a husband, an artist, a human.
I love this book. Hate that there was a reason for it to be written but am grateful that it exists as a testament, not only to this experience and his mighty kid (and her mighty mother), but as a picture of fathering and of getting from one side of something to the other with new wisdom and new depth of emotion and with an honest portrayal of what fear and worry can make an otherwise normal person do—throw birthday cake at a lawyer, as it turns out.
It might be unpopular to say so but fathering is different from mothering—fathers have different goals and different takes on what’s to become of their kids and especially, in my own experience, of their daughters. Elisha the father is interested in building rough and tumble girls with character, girls who can throw the crap out of a ball (or an apple), girls who are familiar with Yankee stadium and the Yale playing fields where both he and their soccer-star mom had found each other. In terms of men parenting girls specifically, the chapter called Orchard is a must-read, wherein, among many other keen and heartfelt observations, he describes raising children in olive grove terms, a take on “it takes a village”—everyone growing everyone, he writes.
As much as this book is about cancer and how it uproots what a parent knows and is familiar with, and even as it uproots them literally from a city and a home that they know, it is also about how every experience of parenting takes you somewhere new that you didn’t know was there before.
There is a passage in the book where Elisha describes his own mother as “fiercely protective…wildly generous” and I think yes, that’s what this is. Even when his legs buckle with expectation of bad news, even when he, in the previous passage, wishes his daughters broken legs and broken hearts so that they might be resilient, he is protective; and when he acknowledges the family history and the privilege that has provided him with a secure enough backup plan and generations worth of stories and contribution, he is intent of giving his family everything in return. Wildly generous indeed.
He himself breaks and is put together again as the memoir ebbs and flows, but when falling into a chair in the doctor’s office, his legs buckle, and wonders about whether he has the strength to bear this, it is his reverence for the strong women in his life that reminds me of the particular father I am dealing with here. His self-awareness, his kindness, and his honesty about what any person can tolerate and how he went about tolerating this particular unfairness, is a gift to anyone who is wondering how to move forward through the unknown.
Nostalgia for me is people and places that make certain moments in my life worth contemplating—the girl with the purse, the skater boy, to begin with but also Magic’s fat-cat journey read aloud at bedtime to my tired toddler who is now a robust 11, the Good Night Walk and the quinoa, too. And now this, being able to read my old friend’s book and thinking fondly about the people who come in an out of our lives and leave gifts behind. In Falling: A Daughter, A Father, and a Journey Back, Elisha Cooper draws a watery but somehow crystal clear picture as he does, of what it is to be an artist and a father, and a writer, and a husband. It’s a picture of falling, yes, but the artistry is in the getting back up again.
He says again and again that he will give his children everything, and he has and he will give more still. Thankfully, though, he has a little left over for the rest of us, too.
Read this book!
(And then read each of these with your kids: A Goodnight Walk, Magic Thinks Big, 8: An Animal Alphabet, Train, Farm)