John and I are babysitting our 11 month old grandson this evening while his parents have dinner out. (They are all with us for two weeks from their home in Ottawa.) I bathed Arthur and put him into his pajamas, then John sat in the low chair in his room and read him a bedtime story. I chose one for them to read at random. When I Was Young in the Mountains, written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Diane Goode.
I’d forgotten this lovely story with its tender images and its lyrical text, built upon remembered moments and a refrain:
When I was young in the mountains,
Grandmother spread the table with hot
corn bread, pinto beans, and fried okra.
When I was young in the mountains,
we listened to frogs sing at dust and awoke
to cowbells outside our windows.
I tidied Arthur’s clothes and smoothed out his bed, listening to the two of them in the chair (a Victorian nursing chair that had been John’s grandmother’s), and thinking how right the story was for this particular night. No frogs, no cowbells, but a bear and her two cubs this morning, crossing the grass to the south of our house. A moon on the evenings when the rainclouds lift. A grandfather kissing the soft hair on a small child’s head.
When I Was Young in the Mountains is told in the past tense. As you read it, you enter a remembered world, a pastoral world of corn bread and swimming holes, of lamplight, well-water, a black cook-stove, a porch swing, and stars. And yet memory, the past tense that contains it, colours the present. It frames the bittersweet nostalgia of the narrator, who admits,
When I was young in the moutains,
I never wanted to go to the ocean, and I never
wanted to go to the desert. I never wanted
to go anywhere else in the world, for I was
in the mountains. And that was always enough.
My family moved every two years when I was a child. There were places I loved enough to never want to leave but we did leave. And I remembered those places all my life. A swimming hole in the creek behind our house on Matsqui Prairie, the dirt road to the lake beyond where we lived in Spryfield, near Halifax, the blue camas fields in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. The past tense for me was fragmented, haunted. I was never young in the mountains but I understand the feelings of the child on the step on the last pages of this story, in her nightgown, reading, her grandmother’s plants beside her, thriving in their old kettles and tins. The safety and quiet of that haven carries the child into adulthood and it’s what I wish for my own grandchildren. I hope that they will remember this place in that way — the bears, the lake nearby, their grandfather’s laugh and his patience, and blueberry pancakes with maple syrup on summer mornings.
So many of the books I read to my children have disappeared, lent to other children, given away. I’m glad to have found this one, at random, on the shelves in the little room we’ve painted and equipped for visiting babies. None of them have enough hair yet for me to braid (“Grandmother sometimes shelled/beans and sometimes braided my hair.”) and we no longer have dogs (“The dogs/lay around us, and the stars sparkled in the sky.”) But the past tense is endlessly comforting, or it can be, accompanied by softly lit illustrations — a porch swing big enough for two and a grandfather sharpening pencils with his pocketknife, readying the imagination of a child who will write this story one day, shaping each detail so beautifully.