Can an eight-month-old have a favorite book? It seems so. Yitzvi squeals and kicks with visible delight any time I take out Freight Train by Donald Crews, and now it has become a regular part of our morning routine. After I drop off the kids at school, he usually has less than half an hour until his morning nap, so we sit on his sister’s bed and tear through a stack of (fortunately untearable) board books. Some of them have proven to be bored books, alas – we’ve eliminated The Runaway Bunny from our repertoire, since the stalker mom always struck me as a bit creepy. Sandra Boynton—whose characters, my daughter recently pointed out, bear a striking resemblance to the Moomintrolls—gets the usual laughs, especially because I’ve composed a silly melody for nearly every book and I act out the story with my singsong. But nothing compares to Freight Train, which I chant in an elevated, somber tone that lies somewhere between Kol Nidre and a slow, plodding composition my older son’s violin teacher once subjected us to for weeks on end. And yet each time, Yitzvi is enthralled.
The book does not have much by way of a plot. The entire story can be encapsulated in the first sentence: “A train runs across this track.” The track, in lieu of a storyline, runs through every page of the book and is visible in all the illustrations. For Yitzvi it’s the narrative thread, but for me it is increasingly resembling a lifeline. On the very first page, where the opening sentence appears in beige, we see only the track but not the train. Aside from this one sentence hovering at the top margin and the beige and brown track beneath, this first page is entirely blank, but it is the blankness of anticipation, like the nine months of pregnancy where you wait for what is coming, hear the whistle growing louder, but can’t quite make out anything yet. And then you turn the page, and all at once – full color!!, like a baby birthed suddenly red and wailing. The red caboose is followed by the orange tank car and the yellow hopper car, all dazzling in their bright red and orange and yellow; but the eyes can’t linger because the hopper car is connected by a black line to the green cattle car on the next page, so you flip quickly and your eyes are treated to the blue gondola car and the purple box car as well. These are the colorful years of childhood, with its vivid intensity, its full spectrum of emotions, its never-a-dull moments.
The complete purple box car appears on the page with the green and blue cars, but then when you turn the page, the front end of the purple car appears again, alongside the black tender and the black steam engine. The memories of childhood linger even as life begins to unfold in more sober, nuanced shades. We turn the next page, and on that page alone we can see the full train clearly, each car a clearly-defined shape and the smoke billowing overhead. Is this the peak of our lives, though we never know it until we’re past? After this, it all begins to blur – on each subsequent page, the train cars lose their definition as the colors fade into one another, much like the way life seems to go by so much faster once “getting older” loses its thrill. I went from 40 to 41 in the blink of an eye, and yet apparently it was in that same period of time that my daughter turned three, then three and a quarters, then three and a half, then three and three-quarters, then “almost almost four,” and then finally finally (up late at night, unable to sleep because tomorrow was the big day) four.
In the second half of the book, the blurry train rushes on. It goes through tunnels, dark subterranean periods when we can barely see any color. It goes by cities, barreling headlong past multi-story skyscrapers fronting on one another. It crosses trestles, suspended perilously between two hulking mountains, hurtling miles and miles above the ground. It moves in darkness and in daylight, through bad times and good – and then, all at once, it is “going, going, gone.” All we see on the final page is the word “gone” and the last billowy plumes of smoke. The train has disappeared from view, but the track continues – much as one life may be over, but life endures.
The book ends, but we read it anew every day. All the mornings in which Yitzvi and I have read this book together are strung together in my mind like train cars. Each car seems to chug along slowly, huffing and puffing to get through the day like the little engine that could. Yitzvi goes down for his nap. I learn the Daf on my phone in his dark shuttered room, sneaking out to find my place in the Gemara to learn by daylight once he falls asleep. He naps. I work at the computer until I hear him crying. We eat breakfast together, often sharing the same spoon and the same containers of yogurt. We play on the floor. We practice moving forwards. We hang laundry or fold it or put it away. And then, just as he gets tired again, the kids come home from school and I reluctantly accept that I won’t get back to work until many hours later, when they are finally all in bed.
And yet if the freight train is my life, then it flashes before me each time we read the book – first the empty track, then each car in its bright-colored intensity, then the full train, and then the blur of color racing past. The Talmud, in discussing the death of Joshua, criticizes the Israelites for failing to mourn their leader properly. Unlike Moses and Aaron, each of whom was mourned for thirty days, there is no mourning period for Joshua mentioned in the Bible. The sages proclaim that “whoever is lazy in eulogizing a sage does not live a long life” (Shabbat 105b) implying that the Israelites who failed to mourn Joshua all died young. But then the Talmud raises an objection, because the book of Judges states, “And the nation worshipped the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the Elders, who lived many days after Joshua” (2:7), indicating that the elders did in fact live long lives in spite of neglecting to eulogize Joshua properly. At this point Rabbi Yohanan chimes in with his close reading, noting that the elders lived “many days” but not “many years.” How they became elders without living many years remains unclear to me. But I take away from this Talmudic passage the notion that the days may seem multitudinous though the years seem preciously few. Or, as several of my older friends are fond of reminding me, the days are long but the years are short.
Donald Crews wrote Freight Train the year I was born – I know this because the four digits appear not just on the copyright page but also on the black tender, a reminder of my own mortality with each rereading. The book is dedicated to “the countless freight trains passed and passing the big house Cottondale.” I wonder if Crews, like my parents, took his children to the railroad crossing to watch the trains pass by on long summer afternoons. I remember that each time it seemed like the train would go on forever, car after car after car, until suddenly—going, going, gone—the train was no more, and I lost count. I am still losing count. Little Yitzvi is growing faster than I can document – the week he was born, a friend gave us a baby book in which to record his milestones, but I have yet to take off the plastic wrap. When the baby is awake I play with him. When he is asleep I use those precious too-few moments to read or write or work or learn or run. I write these words as he is struggling to fall asleep for his midday nap in his crib – I know that his siblings have walked in the door from school, but I am ignoring them for just a moment to finish this paragraph. I sense these words are coming to an end even if I haven’t quite finished, because in just a moment the kids will barrel into the baby’s room to find me, waking him up if I don’t emerge first. My time to write is over. The words have hurtled past and they are going, going, gone.