Let the Wild Rumpus Start: Maurice Sendak, 1928 – 2012

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No one read Sendak to me as a kid, but his books showed up when I needed them.

Maurice Sendak died this week. I don't recall anyone ever reading Where the Wild Things Are or any other of his books to me as a child, but as an adult I've had experiences with two of his books, Wild Things and In the Night Kitchen.

My first encounter with Where the Wild Things Are came when I was twenty-five, snuggled up with my then-boyfriend, Joe, and his three-year-old son, Isaac. Joe and I had dated previously; we were giving things another shot after a two-year period of estrangement. During that time, Joe had married another woman, produced Isaac, and gotten divorced.

When Joe read us stories, he used the appropriate animated voices, adjusting his baritone voice more softly or gruffly as needed. (It was like being read to by Bruce Springsteen.) When Joe read the book Isaac simply called Max, Isaac would clap his little spread hands together, and sometimes would make his tiny voice gruff and low like his dad's. "I'll eat you up!" Joe would say, pretend-scary, and sometimes I could hear Isaac muttering that line a few times under his breath, mirroring the cadence, trying to get it right. Where the Wild Things Are quickly became everyone's favorite.

Still, I wasn't a wife, or a mother, or even a stepmother; I didn't fulfill a real role and yet I was compelled to stay. If anything, I was more like Joe's second child, and as Sendak once said, “being a child was being a creature without power, without pocket money, without escape routes of any kind." I loved being there, in their company, being read to, but there was the underlying fear that I was unnecessary and out of place. And so it became, eventually, and now I'm not in their lives at all. Joe and I said we would remain friends, but that didn't happen. All contact ceased. I don't know how he explained my disappearance to Isaac, but it's something I often wonder. 

"I don't believe in children. I don't believe in childhood. I don't believe that there's a demarcation. 'Oh, you mustn't tell them that. You mustn't tell them that.' You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it's true. If it's true you tell them." — Maurice Sendak

I read my second Sendak book just this January. I was an au pair for a nine-year-old girl named Julie in France. I'd been hired by her sixty-three-year-old single father, Paul, and I lived in their house. I turned out to be a disappointment to him; I won't go into the details, but in his own words, he'd fired the last au pair because she wasn't any fun. Frustrated by my refusals, he questioned and belittled my every move. I'd crossed an ocean to looking for independence, only to find myself once again being treated like a child. "Nutella is very fat," he'd snip over my shoulder at breakfast. To avoid him, I would sneak down into the kitchen in the evenings and eat my feelings. Which, by the way, are delicious. 

The daughter was another issue — she spoke to me as if I were the family servant. She was oddly unattached, cold, and seemed unwilling to let me into her world. One day, I was going through her bookshelf, to use some of her books for studying English and to try to win her over with some bonding storytime. There, I came across In The Night Kitchen; I noted the author with a twinge and took it off the shelf. When I opened the book, the first thing I saw was a note. It was in a young woman's handwriting, in English:

You won't even let me say goodbye to Julie, but please give her this from me. This book was my favorite when I was her age. She may not understand it right now, but I hope that one day she will. Please tell her goodbye for me and that I will miss her.

Then I read the book, about a little boy named Mickey who floats out of his bed and into a colossal bakery. As for the note, I was very tempted to keep it, but I didn't. I wished and still wish I could have contacted Sarah. She was, as I found out later, one of many au pairs to come and go quickly, for not being enough fun. 

Things came to a head a few days later, over Paul's increasingly clear designs on me. The ensuing argument ended with me packing my bags. ("I'm not the milk and the milk's not me!" declares Mickey, unforgettably, as he escapes a similar predicament.) I called a farewell up the stairs to Julie, who'd been sequestered in her room. In return I received the strangest little au revoir that'd ever been uttered, so fakely perky that it sounded tired. She was unsurprised, yet eternally confused; embarrassed, and yet also pleased; exhausted with the whole charade she couldn't comprehend, but that she was forced to witness. I wondered how her father explained, or if he bothered to at all.

Paul gave me forty euros for a cab. I pocketed it, feeling dirty, and then took the train back to Paris, where I had a lot of things to figure out.

"Do parents sit down and tell their kids everything? I don't know. I've convinced myself — I hope I'm right — that children despair at you if you don't tell them the truth. I'm not going to bullshit them. I'm just not. And if they don't like what they hear, well, tough bananas." — Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak harbored little sentimentality about childhood and the life that follows. I think it's no coincidence that his stories, colorful and grey, exciting and lonely, have played witness to times of my life when childhood and stark adulthood intersected, maybe knocked me down a bit, changed the course of my sail. In his final interview with NPR in 2011, he described writing his last book as "a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own." I'm grateful that he was there with me, knowing before I did the way of the wild rumpus, refusing to pretend that adventure, exciting though it is, isn't dangerous too. It can eat you up — or, like Max and Mickey, you may find your way home.