Charlotte’s Web

On Shabbat afternoon I was home alone with Tagel and Yitzvi, and the house felt unusually quiet. Yitzvi was tired so I took him into his room to put him to sleep. Usually he nurses before napping at home, but when I put him on the breast, he wasn’t interested. He reached for his pacifier instead, and although he protested for a few moments after I lay him down—kicking his legs, thrashing his head from side to side—he soon fell into a deep slumber and I crept out of the room on tiptoe. I went to check on Tagel. These days she always insists on reading with the door closed, and she gets annoyed at anyone who enters her room and then leaves without shutting the door – especially her roommate and twin sister, who couldn’t care less. I knocked on her door. It felt strange; usually the kids’ doors are left open. We shut them only at night, and open them when we hear them crying or calling for us. But I wanted to respect her privacy. “Tagel, you OK?” I asked her. “I’m reading,” she told me, glancing up at the doorway where I stood with my own book in my arms. “Can you go out?”
“Maybe I’ll read in your room?” I offered. Daniel was out with the three other kids in the park, and I couldn’t quite imagine that no one needed me.
“OK Ima, fine, but can you close the door?” she asked, not without a trace of annoyance.
I dutifully got up, shut the door, and then perched on the rug between her bed and her sister’s bed to read my book, still somewhat incredulous that I was actually going to have time to read on Shabbat afternoon. “Do you want me to read with you?” I asked her. She shook her head without even looking up from the book. “But you can stay here and I’ll ask you if I have any questions,” she told me. She’s just started reading Charlotte’s Web to herself. I had initially offered to read it to her, but this lasted for half a chapter. When she asked me to keep going, I was busy, and Tagel—being Tagel—didn’t complain, but simply continued on her own. “Fern loved Wilbur more than anything,” the second chapter began. “Wait, Ima – Fern is the girl who is my age? And Wilbur is the pig?”
“That’s right,” I told her, and she kept on. “What does it mean, ‘adoring’?” she asked, looking up at me a few moments later.
“When you adore someone, you love them very much. You adore Yitzvi.” Tagel smiled and went back to reading about how Fern cared for the baby pig, warming bottles of milk for him and pushing him around in her doll carriage.
I went back to my book. I was up to the chapter in Dori Pinto’s Moon when Sharly, who is seven, pretends he doesn’t know how to read yet so that his mother will keep reading aloud to him from their gold-embossed edition of Don Quixote, translated by Bialik. “Read on,” Sharly urges his mother, and I felt like he was encouraging me as well. But I wasn’t really reading. I was thinking about Charlotte, whom Tagel had not even met yet, and trying to imagine what it was like to read the story for the first time, without knowing what would become of the girl and the pig and the spider.
“Ima, it’s so sad, they are going to get rid of Wilbur even though Fern loves him.”
“Really?” I asked. I didn’t think she was already up to that part.
“Yes,” she told me. “Fern’s father says that it is time. He said that Fern had fun raising her baby pig, but he is not a baby any longer – he’s getting too big. So they’re going to sell him. Poor Fern.”
I looked over her shoulder at the end of the second chapter. “It’s OK,” I reassured her. “Her father says he’s going to sell Wilbur to her Uncle Homer, who lives down the road. That means she can visit whenever she wants and sit by the side of the barn and watch him.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but it’s not the same. He’s her baby. Pig baby, I mean.”
I looked over at Tagel. I was watching her from about the same distance that Fern, perched on an old milking stool in the sheepfold, would watch Wilbur in his pen. Just two weeks ago, on their birthday, we had asked Tagel and Liav to each make a list of their birthday wishes, and Tagel had written – “I hope my baby will always stay a baby.” Tagel really does adore Yitzvi – she comes with me every day to pick him up from Gan, greets him with effusive hugs, sings him “The Yitzvi Bitsy Spider,” and entertains him in the afternoons with endless games of “peek-a-boo” and “I’m-gonna-get-you,” as Yitzvi squeals in delight. But now Yitzvi has started having his first tantrums – he’ll throw himself on the ground and thrash wildly when we force his arms into the sleeves of a sweater or tell him that he can’t press all the buttons in the elevator. He is getting older, and he can’t always be calmed with a hug or a pacifier or milk. Lately he’s not all that interested in milk anymore – instead he wants to sit at the table with the rest of us, in the same chairs we sit in, spooning yogurt into his mouth and refusing to let me wipe up the milky whiteness that drops onto his chin, his shirt, his seat. I know what food I place in front of him, but sometimes I look away and I’m not sure what he ate and what he dropped – did he finish that slice of apple I really ought to have peeled and cut smaller? I don’t see it in the fold of his bib or on the floor, but I can’t be sure.
I know which books I take out of the library and buy for Tagel, but I don’t always know what she reads and how much she absorbs. Does she have any idea what Fern’s uncle plans to do with Wilbur? Will she be able to handle the sad ending? Maybe I should make sure to read the last chapter with her – but with three children reading to themselves in all corners of the house, I can’t really make sure of that anymore. My readers, like my baby, are weaning themselves. From the milking stool I watch them, adoringly.

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