Normally, for most parents, this would present nothing but a normal episode in a developing child's imagination. They would spin some yarn that began with "Once upon a time" and they would end it happy, with the bad guy being defeated by the prince or king or princess or queen. And then there would be the ice-cream.
But for me, the request takes on a monumental profundity. You see, dear reader, I consider myself a writer (or Writer, depending on the context). I have intentionally put words together with the hope that anyone reading will "get something out of it." Said differently, I arrogantly consider my word-strings to be worth something. Others feel like my writing is "good" or maybe even profess that it is "fun to read." They encourage me to keep writing, to finish the snipits I have let them read, or to continue with a project that has begun but that I am afraid to finish.
For me, my writing is simply a way for me to control something and perhaps make a point that isn't made in my daily operations as a human. And therein lies the profundity: my family is my world, and my writing is (maybe) something that is of value to me. So when my three-year-old son asks me to tell him a story - one that I make up and not that is read to him - I feel an incredibly ridiculous sense of responsibility. So, pop quiz hotshot: What do you do? What do you do?
I started with "Once upon a time," and he sat down straightaway, criss-cross-applesauce on the hardwood floor with his sippy cup of milk tucked in his lap, a crooked smile that I would recognize if I looked at it in the mirror spread across his face. The moment was electric. I had to perform.
"Once upon a time, there was a young prince named Drake." His smile widened as he recognized the structure of the story and the name attached to one of the protagonists. The story continued with the young prince encountering an evil witch who was trying to take over the kingdom. With the help of his older brother Prince Tristan, the two were able to defeat the evil witch by outsmarting her: they pretended to eat some enchanted candy and when the witch wasn't looking, overran her and made her take back the spells that she had cast on the great King Dada and Queen Mommy, who were asleep after eating enchanted ice-cream cones.
"What happened to the evil witch?" my son asked.
Another challenge - the denouement.
"Well, son, she was asked to go away for ever and ever, and was commanded to cast only good spells that would help people."
He didn't like that ending, so I chose another:
"And when she didn't obey, the royal family tracked her down and turned her into a pumpkin."
Both kids laughed at this one. I now realized that my oldest son was not necessarily completely engrossed in his homework, but rather was listening in on my story. More pressure, but a pressure that was relieved with his smile.
I continued: "And then, after she was a pumpkin, we all took out her insides and cooked them and ate roasted pumpkin seeds. And then we carved a funny face into her, put in a lantern, and put her outside on the porch for kids to see when they came for trick-or-treat."
Giggles from the youngest: a chuckle from the eldest. Then, the youngest suggested that maybe we cut off her nose and ate it, and the story devolved from there with tales of the guts tasting like Jello-O or peanut butter or snot. Both kids were involved; the plot line was destroyed; a happy father witnessed the imagination of his sons.
Three "Once upon a time" stories later, each with the same starring cast of Queen Mommy, King Dada, and the earnest, brave, dashing, and handsome princes Drake and Tristan, and it was time for dinner (after I realized the gas burner side of the barbecue was out of gas and had to resort to the broiler for finishing, which added at least two of the remaining stories). Queen Mommy came home, we shared a meal, and the night progressed as usual with some bad TV, some personal iPad time, a bath, and a glass of wine.
This night will stick in my memory like the peanut butter to my son's face every morning after he eats a PBJ sandwich for breakfast. I shared a piece of myself - spontaneous words in story form - with my sons. My youngest son showed me that he was willing to listen - nay, he was eager to listen to the story I had to tell. As for the eldest son, he showed that he, too, was willing to listen and to get a kick out of the obvious plot developments that contrasted with the slight alterations of the classic tales. Ear buds in, iPad open, he still looked over at us and smiled, and chimed in with the perfect balance of middle school humor that only he and I would understand.
Tonight was a special one, and it began with my son's request for a story. Does anyone really want to argue the "purpose" behind reading literature and developing a sense of story and plot and character and the interconnectedness of all things human and supernatural? Bring it. I'll tell you a story that will bring you to your childhood, and that will remind you of the power of story. And I'll begin it with "Once upon a time..."