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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

An Ageless Gift of Whimsy and Wit

May 12, 1999|CHRIS ERSKINE

Lately, the kid will read to me before bed. Already she can see the difference in my development. My vocabulary is expanding. I'm doing better at work.

"You listening?" the little girl asks, as she turns the pages.

"Yeah, I'm listening," I say.

We don't have a lot in common. She's pretty. I'm not. She likes Hansen. I prefer organ music at the ballpark.

But the work of Shel Silverstein--the children's book author who died Monday at the age of 66--brings us together. Has for years.

His books first came to us at Christmas, from our closest friends and relatives. "The Giving Tree." "Where the Sidewalk Ends." And my favorite, "Falling Up." Now they fall open to her favorite poems, which is always where she starts.

"Ready?" she asks, before launching into one.

"Don't hurt yourself," I say.

"OK, Dad" she says.

I made myself a snowball

As perfect as could be.

I thought I'd keep it as a pet

And let it sleep with me.

I made it some pajamas

And a pillow for its head.

Then last night it ran away,

But first--it wet the bed.

This is vintage Silverstein, quick and whimsical, crisp as a good handshake. He packed the pages with great cartoons he drew himself--camels in brassieres and double-tailed dogs. But it's the words we like the best.

Spaghetti, spaghetti, all over the place,

Up to my elbows--up to my face,

Over the carpet and under the chairs,

Into the hammock and wound round the stairs,

Filling the bathtub and covering the desk,

Making the sofa a mad mushy mess.

The party is ruined, I'm terribly worried,

The guests have all left (unless they are buried).

I told them, "Bring presents." I said, "Throw confetti."

I guess they heard wrong

'Cause they all threw spaghetti!

The little girl and I never just lie down to read. There's a whole routine, a pre-read warmup where we punch the pillows, then scrunch them, then punch them again.

"How's that?" the little girl says.

"Good," I say. "Good punch."

"Thanks."

And she grabs her favorite books, some we've read a hundred times. Others, a thousand. I hear them in my sleep, these stories.

Frankly, most of them aren't all that great. Simple stuff, not that clever. Really just ear gloss.

Often, I fall asleep. She elbows me, then I fall asleep again.

But Shel Silverstein always kept me up nights.

Part Dr. Seuss, part bar limerick, his words rolled off our tongues and made us laugh a little, poking fun at bullies and boa constrictors. Even at dads.

It's just like a TV remote control,

Except that it works on fathers.

You just push the thing that you want him to do,

And he does it without any bother.

You want him to dance? Push number five.

You want him to sing. Push seven.

You want him to raise your allowance a bit? You simply push eleven.

You want him quiet? Just hit MUTE.

Fourteen will make him cough.

You want him to stop picking on you . . . ?

Just push Power-Off.

This night, the little red-haired girl takes one Silverstein book, I take another. Like jazz musicians, we trade riffs. She reads one, then I read one.

For half an hour we read, then she falls asleep on my shoulder, of all places. It's nearly 9:30, and I lie here and keep reading. One last one, another last one. Like a drinker who can't push away from the bar.

Finally, at 10 o'clock, I read the closer, a bittersweet poem from a writer who knew, maybe better than anyone, how to mix the bitter and the sweet.

Sandra's seen a leprechaun,

Eddie touched a troll.

Laurie danced with witches once,

Charlie found some goblins' gold.

Donald heard a mermaid sing,

Susy spied an elf,

But all the magic I have known

I've had to make myself.

Thanks for the magic.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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