Yitzvi, at age two, is increasingly light on his feet. He enjoys running around the house and hiding in closets and under tables, waiting for us to discover him and then squealing in visible delight when we do. “Where’s Yitzvi?” I’ll ask the twins while we are in the kitchen making pizza, spreading tomato sauce over the dough. The girls will shrug their shoulders, and I’ll run down the hall and discover him “cleaning” the toilet, one hand in the bowl and the other wielding a dripping toilet brush. “Oh Yitzvi,” I’ll sigh, my exasperation tinged with obvious amusement as I lift him up to wash and soap his hands. “What are we going to do with you?”
Usually at bedtime he will sit on Shalvi’s bed flipping through board books while I read Shalvi a story or two, but last night he had no interest in sitting still. I let him run off, assuming he would join Daniel, who was cleaning up dinner.
That night Shalvi wanted to read Alfie Runs Away, the story of a little boy about Shalvi’s age—five, maybe six—who informs his mother that he is going to run away after she tells him that she is giving away his favorite red shoes, which he has outgrown. His mother is wise enough to know not to stop him. She is wiser, for sure, than the mother of the Runaway Bunny, who follows her charge to streams and trees and hidden gardens. Instead of chasing him, or telling him not to run away—which would of course only encourage him further—she advises him to take the proper provisions: a water bottle in case he gets thirsty, a flashlight with extra batteries in case it gets dark, peanut butter and crackers in case he gets hungry, and a bag to carry it all. He also takes his stuffed Buddy Bear after his mother warns him that the bear might miss him, and three books, including one about a toad and a frog.
“Ima, we have that book,” Shalvi interrupts me. We squint to try to make out the picture of the book that Alfie stuffs in his back. Is it indeed a book from the same Frog and Toad series we love? I decide it must be, if only because we relish these moments of intertextual allusion, when we discover one beloved book hiding in the pages of another. It’s like discovering a familiar friend in an unexpected place, like the time we ran into one of Shalvi’s preschool classmates at the zoo. Who would have thought we’d stumble upon Frog and Toad in Alfie Runs Away?
Just before Alfie heads out the door, his unwieldy sac on his back, his mother offers to put a hug in the bag as well. Alfie tells her she is being silly, but he doesn’t resist. He steps onto the back porch, goes down the stairs, and decides his back is getting too heavy, so he camps out in the backyard with Buddy Bear. They stay there for a while, reading stories as the sun sinks lower in the sky.
Alfie never gets any further than the back yard. When he starts to get lonely, he looks for his mother’s hug in the bag, but of course it’s not there. Just then his mother—once again with her impeccable intuition—comes out to give Alfie a real hug and escort him home. And so the back yard functions as a safe space where Alfie can play at running away without any of the dangers that really doing so might entail. There are no streets to cross. There are no strangers to encounter. There is no getting lost. I am tempted to ask Shalvi if she’s ever wanted to run away, but I realize I don’t have to. The book can function, for Shalvi, like Alfie’s back yard – it is a safe space where she can imagine running away without actually having to do so. So I don’t ask, but I’m relieved when she tells me anyway that if she ever ran away, she would make sure to come home for dinner. “Thank goodness,” I tell her, taking my cues from Alfie’s mother. “If you ran away for longer than that, I would miss you too much.”
In the end of the book Alfie decides to put his old shoes on Buddy Bear, since they’ll never grow too small for the stuffed animal. Ironically once Alfie agrees to get new shoes, he’ll be able to run even faster and even further, and perhaps it was his ambivalence about that prospect that in part motivated his running away in the first place. The midrash on the book of Genesis teaches that after Joseph’s brothers threw Joseph into a pit, they sold him to Ishmaelite traders for the price of a pair of shoes, and I’ve always wondered if this was a testament to their own desire to walk away from the crime. Alfie wishes to walk away from his mother, but in order to do so, he’s going to need to agree to give up his old shoes and get new ones.
When Shalvi and I finish the story, I tell her it’s time to read to Yitzvi – except that Yitzvi is nowhere to be found. “Daniel, I’m coming to get Yitzvi,” I call down the hall, but alas, no.
“YItzvi’s with you, isn’t he?” Daniel calls back a bit louder than necessary, since I’m now in the kitchen next to him, and I can see that Yitzvi is nowhere in sight. “Did we lose Yitzvi?” I ask. The kids rally to the task, searching for him in all the likeliest places, but alas, no Yitzvi. I know there is no point in calling out his name, because that will only encourage him to play along. And sure enough, moments later, we discover a grinning Yitzvi perched on a chair on our porch wearing only a diaper and sandals. Who knew he could open the porch door all on his own? He has a pacifier in his mouth and two in his hand; with the other hand he’s strapping and unstrapping the Velcro on his sandals, as if contemplating how far they might take him someday. “Oh Yitzvi,” I sigh once again, and carry him off to bed. Next time I’ll be sure to read Alfie Runs Away to Yitzvi, too.