It is no mystery what our kids are reading these days. Each is absorbed in a different Hebrew detective series: Tagel is on the seventh book by Michael Abbas about a group of kids who help the police solve crimes, Liav is on her thirtieth (or is it fortieth?) Gingi mystery, and Matan is buried in a series of spy thrillers by Dana Elazar-Halevy about kids sent on international missions by a Mossad agent. And so I decided it was time to read them my favorite detective novel from my childhood, Harriet the Spy, which is one of those books that demands rereading as a grown-up. For decades I have been saving my copy, a dog-eared Dell Yearling paperback with the price—$1.50—printed on the front cover, above the image of Harriet with her red-hooded sweatshirt, her marble notebook tucked under her arm, and her flashlight, canteen, and boy scout knife affixed to her tool belt, striding forth on the sidewalks of Manhattan with her jowl set in determination. She reminds me of Matan, who rarely leaves the house without his flashlight and a boxed set of small screwdrivers, just in case they should come in handy.
Eleven-year-old Harriet thinks she’s training herself to become a spy, but the grown-up reader very quickly realizes that she is in fact training herself to become a writer. Every day when she gets home from school, she sets off on her spy route through the streets of her neighborhood on the East Side. She carries her spy notebook everywhere and jots down observations about the people around her, which are printed in the book in ALL CAPS. Her spy notebook is essentially a window into her mind – we learn about her best friends (Sport, who cooks and cleans for his father, a writer seemingly oblivious to the real world; and Janie, an aspiring chemist who threatens to blow up anything she doesn’t like) and family (including her nurse Ole Golly, who has taken care of her since birth and knows her far better than her emotionally distant parents) and about her thoughts (does money make people dull? Can a person work while lying down? Why don’t people with dumbwaiters check inside them all the time to make sure no one is spying on them?). In reading her notebook, we are privy to her misconceptions about wealth, about love, about privacy, about loneliness – the young reader learns about the workings of the world alongside Harriet, and the older reader smiles knowingly above her bent head and her scribbling hand.
The book was published in 1964 and requires considerable explanation for my kids, who have never used a dumbwaiter or gone to the pictures or eaten Lobster Thermidor or sipped an egg cream at a drug store counter. I thought I explained the pictures pretty well when Harriet goes to the early showing – Tagel listened and then pronounced that it was “like Hashkama.” I got the egg cream wrong – when I later looked it up, I realized that you don’t actually crack a raw egg into an ice cream soda, as I’d told them. The egg gets cooked with brandy and cream and stuffed inside the crustacean shell to make Lobster Thermidor, I now know. As for the dumbwaiter, it sufficed to remind the kids of the wooden cabinet attached to a pulley that little Charlie loved playing in when All-of-a-Kind Family moved uptown – they could make sense of one literary association by reference to another, with no need to involve the real world.
Except that our reading spilled into the real world, as inevitably it does. On Friday afternoon I took the kids to the park so as to get them out of the house while Daniel cleaned. It was one of those rare and ideal park visits where I actually managed to read – Yitzvi was napping at home, the big kids were happily squishing themselves onto a single swing, and Shalvi was sitting beside me on a bench blissfully absorbed in a unicorn sticker book and humming loudly to herself, interrupting me only on occasion to affix a horn to a white forehead. At one point Liav ran over to express concern about a dog in the park that didn’t have a collar – “Is it a wild dog, Ima?” I reassured her that the dog seemed harmless and returned to performing unicorn surgery – absent-mindedly, because my head was nearly a century away.
I had just started Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, an autobiographical novel about growing up as the youngest of five siblings in fascist Italy in a rowdy home filled with books and ideas. “Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer,” Ginzburg writes in her introduction, and proceeds to document—through the imperfect lens of memory—the story of her childhood. All memoirists are engaged in espionage of sorts, spying on their past selves and scribbling it all into a notebook. This is how I think I felt; This is how he must have felt. I love reading about writers’ childhoods, especially writers with big and book-ish families. But I harbor no illusions. I’m not spying on what happened, but on how it might have seemed and felt. I would not take any memoir much more seriously than a novel.
Memory, writing, truth – this is where my thoughts drift when I can get lost in a book, sinking below the surface level of what happened and into the murkier depths of how the story is told and why. But the level of what happened was yanking me back, calling my name urgently and excitedly: “Ima, Ima, look, an explosion!” I glanced up for a moment and did a quick count—four kids—and then returned to my book. Shalvi had run over to the big kids, who were standing atop a hill pointing to the roof of a nearby apartment building. There was indeed a terribly loud sound, as if a street cleaner were driving right through the park, except that the noise was coming from the sky. I followed the line of the kids’ fingers and saw a thick column of white smoke rising from the white boiler atop the building high into the sky, like the trail of spaceship that had just blasted off into space. “The boiler on that building is exploding,” Matan exclaimed. “Can I go get my binoculars?”
I had still not completely emerged from the village hamlet where I was vacationing with Natalia’s family, and Matan’s voice was muffled through his mask, so I thought he had asked me if he could get his rhinoceros. “Yes,” I nodded, not sure what he meant but eager to be left alone. There were other adults in the park who seemed to be on top of the boiler situation, and the kids were engaged, so I wasn’t worried. In one of the midrashim about why God chose Abraham to be the founder of the Jewish people, the rabbis relate that Abraham was once walking on his way when he saw a residential building ablaze. He stopped and said, “Who is in charge of this building?” God chose Abraham because Abraham stopped to notice when the world was on fire. It’s similar to the story of Moses shepherding his flock when he comes to the burning bush – God chose Moses because he was the kind of person who would turn aside when confronted by the suspicious sight of a bush that was burning but not consumed. I would make a terrible prophet, and an even worse spy. If I found myself suddenly in the presence of a burning bush, I would undoubtedly finish the chapter.
Next thing I knew Matan had returned with binoculars, which he held up to his eyes, and a notebook and pencil, which he handed to Tagel. “Write it down,” he said. “Exploding boiler – did someone take a very long shower?” He dictated to Tagel, who bent down to rest the notebook on the park bench so she could write. “Maybe everyone in the building is taking a shower for Shabbat at the same time. A very hot shower. Do boilers explode when everyone showers at once?” His blend of observation and speculation reminded me of Harriet, who was clearly their inspiration – just the previous night we had read about Harriet’s difficulty with math. She wrote in her notebook that perhaps there was a part of the brain that corresponded to each part of the body; she had a short nose, so she surmised that the long nose part of the brain was where the math should be. “I know,” exclaimed Liav, “the explosion must be related to the wild dog that was here. It’s gone!” Matan was convinced she was on to something. “OK Tagel, write this – maybe the dog took a shower and he didn’t know how to use it. Oh, and add this: The wild dog is out of sight.” Matan kept peering through his binoculars – the explosion was considerably quieter and the pillar of smoke was now just a thin wisp. Tagel continued to jot it all down in her phonetic spelling – the dog was out of sit.
It seems that I was out of sit too, because Daniel had just texted me that Yitzvi was awake and it was time to go home so the kids could take their own showers. I got up from the bench and rallied the kids. Tagel put the notebook under her arm like Harriet, and Matan affixed his binoculars to the belt loops of his jeans. Shalvi’s unicorns—at once real and fantastical—were now prancing across every page of her sticker book. Matan leaned over and covered Tagel’s ear with his hand, first glancing at me to make sure I couldn’t hear him. “What, what?” clamored Shalvi, who wanted in on the fun. Matan whispered to her, too, and then added loudly, “Don’t tell.” Shalvi broke out into a wide smile. “Oh…” she said excitedly, unable to keep her voice low. “We’re going to set up a big camera and spy on…. Abba!” Matan glared at her, indignant. “Abba! I said Abba! I didn’t tell her!” I laughed, shepherding the spies back home.