Remembering the books that taught us more than we ever cared to learn.
“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me…”
Making Meaningfully Doughy Memories with Maurice Sendak
It was certainly more than my dream, at a mere 5 years, to live In The Night Kitchen. It was a definitive goal.
I knew it would be precarious, I knew there could be technical difficulties, but I knew it was possible. I had black hair like Mickey. He was an up-start, able to escape three chefs who wanted to cook him. He was a hero, understanding that cake was one of the best breakfasts. He was a clever and crowing with a profound pride in his nudity. He was just as I strove to be, and it only made sense that at night, I could, conceivably, venture into a night kitchen of my own.
I had elaborate plans drawn up, in secret from my parents. Surely they most of all — who read it to me every night for years — must have known I was hatching grandiose plans. I tried to squirrel them away in my dresser drawers and on the underside of my pet snake’s glass cage. I was pretty sure nobody knew, save my stuffed purple stegosaurus Bernice, the one real boy in whom I felt I could confide anything. A night owl from the very outset of my nocturnal career, I recall lying there in my bed, tense and ready to spring — waiting and waiting for the racket of my parent’s movements below to dissolve and for all to be still. There would go my clothes — and there would go I.
I love thinking back on how this book opened up a world for me, one not quite real but not quite pretend either. Now, I particularly relish the play of the rhymes as they tumble across the nightscape of images, letting this book careen into a song that I don’t recall, but that I must have heard loudly as a youngling experiencing a read-aloud. When read with vigor, with a quickness that lets the rhymes come out of the woodwork and stand side by side, there is an amazing momentum that does not come through when reading with emphasis placed on each turn of the page. I find that reading this book very quickly and with exaggerated tone, a special frequency is attained that ears fastened to young brains can’t help but take in seriously — which always contrasts with the fantastic nudity and visions of flight in this book. Like a throng of absurd moths to a flame radiating a very serious light — pre-school children that I now teach and to whom I read this book, who still know that the nighttime is inexplicable and who take witching hours oh so seriously, can’t get enough of this masterpiece by Uncle Maurice. Images, rhymes, rhythm, and text all interact on these pages, so that entering the world of In the night kitchen let’s children believe that they can become what Mickey is. This book convinced child-me to know that I could, and that knowing was the powerful part.
Many night attempts were first foiled by the sounds of my parents’ movements just around the corner from the bottom of the stairs. I’d freeze, having fallen just halfway out of my pajamas, pants-less, on the landing or in the room with the couches no one was supposed to touch. But I studied diligently from my bed, nestled wide-awake with Bernice. It seemed only logical that just around those corners, as soon as my mother and father turned in, that something must be ready to happen. I could hear it I listened so close. Eggbeaters were dancing with spatulas, and without me! It was more than my child mind could bear.
One or two late nights, I made it. I know I made it, but really I just think I did. Completely naked, I’m in a big tin soup pot with a ladle in my right hand, riding along on the counter’s edge, the dishwasher murmuring sweetly and fridge hissing sharply and me crowing and crowing at the nighttime.
Memories of childhood are a lot like In The Night Kitchen, with a rhythm that makes for moments of crystalline clarity, yet with doughy sections not quite yet finished cooking in between. Sprawled out on the countertop I’d sleep with a smile — a mere skirt of crumbs keeping me warm. My parents gasping, then (and this is the doughy part) smiling sweetly and crowing just a bit on their own as they carry me back up to bed.
Then, of course, cake for breakfast.
—Jacob Kerner is a teacher, adventurer, tree climber, creator of arts and poems, urban gardener, typewriter enthusiast, and has had poems published in Apiary Magazine, The Blotter, and Adagio Verse Quarterly. Check out many a visual of his work at: deepcutsofbrotherlylove.tumblr.com