We Are Never Sick of Books

We are about to start another lockdown. It might be the third, or maybe the fourth – I’ve lost count. Technically the lockdown began a couple of weeks ago, when all the stores and restaurants were shuttered, but I didn’t really feel the impact of the change in policy because school continued. So long as the kids can leave the house in the morning and I get a few hours of quiet, I can handle anything. But last night we were informed that tomorrow is the final day of school and Gan for at least two weeks, and so once again we will have to navigate the three-ring circus of overseeing Zoom classes for the older kids, entertaining the little ones, and trying to stay somewhat on top of our own work commitments. There’s not much I’m looking forward to, except that I’ll have more time to read to the kids – assuming everyone stays healthy and safe.

I have learned not to take our health for granted. Yitzvi has been home for a week because one of the aides in his Gan tested positive for Corona, so all the kids were placed into quarantine. Ironically we learned of his quarantine the same week he began walking, such that his range of movement was restricted just when he finally learned how to get up and go. I was already used to leaving him in one room and finding him in another, since he was quite an adept crawler. But now that he has use of his hands, he makes off with toothbrushes, spoons, and Siddurim—his three favorite objects to pilfer—as if preparing to build a nest in which to eat, pray, and brush. He is especially fond of Siddurim because they are small and lightweight and accessible to him on the lowest shelf. By now we’ve all become accustomed to the sight of Yitzvi toddling around the house clutching an open siddur, as if his piety will not allow him to desist from davening for even a moment.

We haven’t yet received Yitzvi’s Corona test results – Matan, who is quite concerned, has learned how to refresh the website of our health clinic so as to check every few hours (if not more frequently) for the report. Meanwhile, I’m trying to distract the kids with a new book, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. New for us, that is – the book itself is over a century old. Our copy, which I found at the book drop on a late-night ramble, was published in 1948 and looks old but charming – the pages are yellowed and stained and most of the illustrations are black line drawings, but there are also full-color endpapers depicting the Pepper siblings being entertained by an organ grinder, as well as a scattering of full-color illustrations labeled with one line of text printed as an italicized caption below. The novel, which was originally published in 1881, tells the story of a widowed mother and her five children, ranging in age from three to twelve. The family is very poor – they live in a little brown house with a broken stove they have to stuff with paper, and they have so few provisions that the gift of a few raisins from a generous elderly neighbor is a cause for celebration. The mother works as a seamstress, assisted by her eldest daughter Polly; her eldest son, Ben, chops wood to help make ends meet. But then several of the children come down with the measles, and it seems for a short but tense while that the family will not recover.

“What is measles anyway, mammy?” Polly inquires when her younger sister Phronsie is felled, and my kids echo her question. I’m relieved that I can offer them a different answer than Mrs. Pepper supplies: “Oh, ‘tis something children always get,” she tells Polly. I tell my kids that while children used to get measles all the time, there is now a vaccine for it. “Do you need to get two vaccines or one?” Matan asks. He has been following the news of the new Corona vaccine very carefully and is anxious for his parents to get their two vaccines as soon as possible. “Two, I think,” I tell him absently, reading on. Phronsie lies inert in her mother’s arms, burning with fever, and soon the other children are also afflicted. The illness strains Polly’s eyes and she has to wear a heavy bandage over them, and Ben—who is himself still convalescing—entertains his ailing siblings by telling them stories. “Like you do for us,” Liav observes. “But why does everyone always have to get sick in the books you read us? I’m sick of hearing about sick people,” Liav complains, laughing at her own joke.

“Who else got sick?” I ask them, and the kids launch into a litany of the literary maladies we have encountered thus far. “Remember Mary got really sick in Little House on the Prairie?” Liav reminds us. “Is Polly going to go blind like Mary?” she worries. I assure her—because somehow I remember this detail from my own reading of the series decades earlier—that Polly will not. “Mary had scarlet fever, not measles,” I reassure Liav, even though I don’t actually know which is more dangerous.

“Is that what the girls had in All-of-a-Kind Family?” Tagel wants to know, and indeed she is right. She remembers the scene well: In the midst of the Passover preparations, Sarah’s head starts to hurt and Mama calls Dr. Fuchs, who diagnoses her with scarlet fever; soon four of the girls, all but Henny, are delirious with fever and Mama confines them all to a single room in the house as per the doctor’s orders: “Keep the sick ones away from the others.” It’s a lesson we know all too well these days, with each of our kids in and out of quarantine. Each time one of our kids goes in, we have to fill out an online form reporting their quarantine to the Ministry of Health. It was similar in All-of-a-Kind Family, except there was no internet in 1912; instead, the Board of Health came to put a quarantine sign on their door to warn others to stay out. The sign is still on their door when Passover starts, like the blood on the doorposts of the homes of the Israelites, though I’m not sure the author had this analogy in mind. Henny sits alone at the seder table with her parents, her four sisters confined to their sickroom until at last, when the holiday ends, the girls recover and the apartment is fumigated.

“Did anyone else get sick?” I ask the kids, and they remind me that the plot of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was set in motion on account of illness – in the opening chapters, one of the four mice in the Frisby family, Timothy, falls so ill with pneumonia that the family is unable to move out of their cinder block house before the day that Farmer Fitzgibbon is expected to come through with his plough. As the mouse doctor warns Mrs. Frisby, Timothy will must stay in bed for at least three weeks or his life will be at risk. My kids want to know the difference between pneumonia and scarlet fever and I’m relieved and grateful that the honest answer is that I simply don’t know. My kids were vaccinated against all these illnesses in their early years of life, as I was four decades ago. “I think that with pneumonia you feel cold, and with scarlet fever you feel hot and sweaty,” I venture, vowing to look it up later. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if they remember the illness we encountered at the start of the pandemic, when we spent our first lockdown reading Frances Hodgson Burnett.

“Whose parents get sick and die at the beginning of a book we read a few months ago?”
“Sara!” yells Liav, and simultaneously Tagel yells, “Mary!” They are both right. In A Little Princess, Sara Crewe’s father dies of jungle fever when he thinks he has lost all his money; upon his death, his only daughter is abruptly informed that she has become a pauper. And in Hodgson Burnett’s other famous children’s novel, The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is orphaned at the age of nine when her aristocratic British parents die “like flies” in the cholera pandemic that sweeps across India. Both books are about young girls growing up without parents to care for them – Sara is entrusted to the care of the cold and heartless Miss Minchin, who runs a seminary for girls in London; and Mary is taken to live with her uncle, a remote widower devastated by heartbreak, on a large country estate in the Yorkshire Moors. In both books, the death of the protagonist’s parents is necessary to set the plot in motion; by the time you get swept up in the story, you’ve already lost sight of the jungle fever and the cholera that cast a dark shadow over the opening chapters.

And indeed, we’ve somehow managed to lose sight of much of the sickness too. Amidst all the technical complications of this pandemic – how to order food online, how to share a screen on Zoom, how to submit a request for a vaccine referral – I find myself forgetting that the reason we are all staying home and wearing masks is because people are dying all over the world of a virulent virus strain. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism, because thinking about illness is just too scary; but I am more focused on acting lawfully than on staying safe. Can I take out the garbage without a mask? Can I break quarantine and take Yitzvi in his stroller to pick up his sister, if the alternative is to leave him alone with a seven-year-old? On good days, when the kids sit around me rapt and riveted as I read chapter after chapter, the pandemic sometimes feels like little more than the backdrop to the stories we are reading, with the Peppers’ little brown house eclipsing the world outside our apartment. Our door doesn’t have a quarantine sign, but if it did, I imagine it would say “Story hour in progress. Do not disturb.”

2 thoughts on “We Are Never Sick of Books

  1. Sharon Citron Urbas says:

    Oh what a world we are living in. Aside from our losses z”l I hope the rest of us remain healthy. By the way I had several of those illnesses before vaccines. At least that’s an improvement in this world. Especially the new corona virus. Cuddle with all five while you can. They will grow up too quickly


  2. Tamar says:

    Your post triggered memories of my own early childhood book favorites: The Five Little Peppers and All-of-a-Kind-Family! Instead of feeling panicky over the unfolding health crises, dire poverty consequences, and overwhelming losses, I was awed by heroic personal courage, old-time (effective) home remedies, spiritedness, and exquisitely kind helpers.


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