A few years ago, I challenged myself to write a bedtime story.
But where to start?
The answer was obvious: where most good stories start… at home.
In the summer of 1974, my father was diagnosed with cancer and my twelve-year old world flipped. Summer days became sick days.
I found relief at my friend Lynda’s. Her parents owned a small farm in Central Illinois, and it was to their weathered, white farmhouse surrounded by cornfields that I escaped. I spent days on end on the Corder farm. There were always litters of kittens in the barn, and puffs of peeping chicks to hold in my open palm. There were cows, too, and a horse with the clichéd name of Wildfire, and a goat that ate the laces off my left sneaker one afternoon. That summer — while my mother worried and my father underwent rounds of medical treatments – I rode a horse and collected eggs. My hands grew callouses. My skin turned brown. I became a real farm girl.
But it was nighttime on the farm that held a special enchantment. Long after everyone else had fallen asleep, I would lie in the top bunk and just listen. Old farmhouses like the Corder’s didn’t have air conditioning and the nighttime farm sounds drifted in through the screen windows. Crickets chirruped. A cow lowed. A dog barked in the distance. And in the dark, in the country, in that very place, I felt safe. The world felt “right” again, if only for those few, cozy moments. For a little girl with a seriously sick father, those moments soothed me.
Even now, when I’m worried or I can’t sleep I’ll think back to those summer nights on the Corder farm. Once again, I’m calmed. Everything is “right.”
Naturally, once I’d decided on writing a bedtime tale, it found its way to the farm.
What did not come naturally was the purpose of most bedtime literature. Let’s face it; bedtime stories are often parental tools. “I will read you this book and you will go to sleep.” They’re not so much about story.
My youngest son, Michael, sussed this out when he was just a kindergartener. One night, he pushed away the soothing, rhyming bedtime story I was reading to him and said, “Boring, boring. Are bedtime stories supposed to bore kids to sleep?”
I didn’t want to do that to my readers!
Still, I did stick to that one essential rule of bedtime stories: all the characters must be very, very tired by story’s end.
And so I took the farm setting and that essential rule and I mixed in some silliness. And a few surprises. And a bit of a guessing game. And then there’s this other thing:
When I was a young mother, my house buzzed with two high-energy little boys named Scott and Michael, a haughty cat named Felix, and a bouncing, exuberant, overly affectionate Labrador retriever named Nemo.
Hardly a night went by that Felix didn’t come tippy-pawing his way onto my bed to rub his face against mine, purr and pillow and finally plop down on my chest to… so annoying! … clean himself.
“Go sleep in your own bed,” I’d say. Gently, I’d shove the cat off the bed and he’d stalk away.
I’d just be drifting off when…
A fanning tail and a licking tongue that felt as if I was being slapped in the face by a wet, piece of baloney would awaken me.
“No, No, go sleep in your own bed,” I would cry, pushing and shoving and wiping my face.
With a reproachful backwards glance, Nemo would slink off to his own bed in the corner of the room.
Now I could sleep, right?
Then came two giggling boys. Placing their plump, little hands on my cheeks they would beg, “Can we sleep in your bed?”
And I’d move over. Make room. And they’d wiggle beneath the covers. Then those perfect little boys in their footie pajamas would snuggle in, snuggle down.
Bedtime at the Fleming home.
It’s a moment all parents have experienced. And while my story depicts —SPOILER ALERT—a girl and her cat snuggling in at story’s end, my hope is that parents will see themselves in the story. Most of all, I hope they will make their own snuggly moments by sharing this book with their little readers.