Our younger daughter, never a miracle of organization, was less than fastidious in her search for a swimming suit. She had upended a storage tote of summer clothes, books and old toys. On the floor lay scattered T-shirts, swimming goggles, a mummified towel, one flip-flop and one upside-down copy of “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
It was an endearing irony: the enchanting tale of a discarded toy itself discarded.
I took the book downstairs and opened it up for the first time in years.
Do you remember the part where The Velveteen Rabbit is lying in a heap with the toys that The Boy has outgrown? The Rabbit observes that the mechanical toys think rather highly of themselves. The wind-up toys put on airs and pretend they are real.
“What is real?” the Rabbit asks the Toy Horse. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
No, the Horse says: “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”
The opportunity to read and reread “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Goodnight, Moon,” “The Secret Garden” and “The Little Mermaid” are among the rewards of fatherhood. In the years before we became parents, I came to envy people who had children to read to and, for that matter, who had children.
It looked like work, but nice work if you could get it. Parents who made jesting complaints about fixing their kids’ lunches or driving them to soccer received no sympathy from me. I thought they were bragging.
For many of us, the years before we had children were full, or nearly so, of adventure, travel and discovery. Also, solvency. But increasingly, accomplishments at work and personal indulgences were less and less fulfilling. They didn’t seem to matter, they lacked reality.
“Real,” the Toy Horse said, “doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time … by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”
The years of parenthood entail several thousand bedtime stories, several thousand lunch bags, hundreds of juice spills, dozens of unbearably long drives to Gramma’s, Father’s Day presents we will never use but always keep, more tears than there are stars in the sky, a few trips to the emergency room, and more joy than any of us thought possible.
Now, tight in the joints, weak of eye, with hair loved off, we still shamble into their rooms after lights-out and watch them sleep. Like The Velveteen Rabbit, emerging years later to look out at The Boy, we gaze upon a son or daughter. Silently and gratefully, the creaky old dad, like the rabbit, “comes back to look at the child who had first helped him to be real.”