How Writing Brought My Daughter and Me Closer
November 8, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Rebecca Rolland
Last Christmas morning, trying to ignore the dreary weather and the even drearier pandemic-induced quarantine, I told my nine-year-old daughter Sophie I had a present for her—but it wasn’t edible, and I hadn’t bought it. I handed her three double-spaced pages.
“I wrote you a story,” I said.
“You what?” she asked. “But I don’t like to read.”
Still, she sat and read for a minute. Then she laughed.
“The vlute!” she said. “Like the one Paul plays in the shower. I like that!”
The vlute was a green plastic recorder her brother, three-year-old Paul, had received at a birthday party a year earlier. It was cheaply constructed and made a terrible squeaking noise—especially after my husband Philippe had stepped on it by accident. Paul especially loved playing it in the early morning, when I most wanted quiet. Playing the vlute in the shower had been a compromise.
“My vlute!” he’d said, making squawking sounds. “So cool!”
We’d told him it was called a flute, but it didn’t matter. The name stuck.
That morning, Sophie folded the pages and went on to her other presents, exclaiming over her L.O.L. Clubhouse dolls. She didn’t seem to think much of the story, and I let it go. I’d written it on a whim the night before, feeling I didn’t have enough presents for her, but that I didn’t know what else to give her. Buying more things, I sensed, wasn’t the solution. The combination of “mom guilt” mixed with a sense of restless hunger and anxiety. I wanted to bring some hope, or joy, or excitement, to her and Paul, but I had no idea how.
The pandemic had already dragged on for nearly a year. For the first time in Sophie’s memory, we hadn’t gone to France to spend the holiday with her relatives. Still, she’d talked excitedly about Christmas for weeks, and seemed to be trying to make the best of it. We’d have a Christmas tree, she said, for the first time, and she’d decorate it. We’d have time to make hot chocolate and maybe even go sledding, if there was snow.
Never mind that there was no snow, and we didn’t even go to the grocery store, and she and Paul kept fighting over which ornaments to put on the tree. Never mind that, as healthy as our family remained, I knew we weren’t happy. Far from it. Sophie kept asking to call friends. She kept asking to go to indoor water parks that had closed. We felt disconnected and frustrated, I sensed. So I did what I knew how to do, from years of practice, ever since childhood. I wrote.
And yet I’d never written anything for children. Since high school, I’d considered myself mostly a poet, writing longhand. Then I moved into nonfiction about parenting, and finally into fiction, inspired by the uniqueness of the people I met as a speech-language pathologist. But writing for kids was something I’d stayed away from. I never could seem to get it right.
But this story was different. I thought about Sophie as I wrote it, imagining what would make her laugh. I’d had the idea that, when Paul played the vlute, a world opened up in a wormhole—a little like Alice in Wonderland dropping down the rabbit hole. But this would be called Vluteland, a place filled with vlutes of all sorts. And she and Paul would be the heroes.
After my more “serious” writing, the opportunity to play with an idea made me laugh. Still, I’d assumed it was a one-time thing.
But then, the next day at dinner, Sophie stopped me. “What about Vluteland?” she asked. “What happened?”
“What do you think?”
“Oh, let me tell you.” She set down her fork. And then she started talking. She told me all about Vluteland: Arctic Vluteland and Desert Vluteland, each with different climates. She talked so much her mouth hurt. She went to get water, and then kept on.
“Put all that down, okay?” she asked me. “I don’t like the writing part.”
“Okay,” I said.
It was true. She didn’t like to write. Often, she claimed “all the good ideas are taken.” In school, she ripped her paper and said she didn’t like what she had written.
So I decided to go with the flow. Over the next days, I started carving out time every evening to write about Vluteland. The story became increasingly absurd, and I let myself get lost in it. There was Nancy P. Potato, short for Nancy Potato Potato, a woman from Idaho with a strange love of the spud; Zero Ma, a grandmother who didn’t want to feel old and hated the name “Grandma;” and Papaya, the talking papaya, who constantly complained about being cold.
As I wrote, I felt momentarily released from the daily reality of handwashing and wearing masks. And soon, I found, the story created a ritual between us. Each evening, at bedtime, I brought that day’s pages, printed out, and Sophie read out loud.
The more the isolation dragged on, the more I wrote. The process was escapist, I sensed—but it was an escapism we both needed, and better than buying random things on Amazon (which I also did). Sophie started saying she might have some good ideas. She invented Happy Liam and Sad Liam, two potatoes that Nancy P. claimed were her babies. Nancy P. tossed them in the air. She gave them faces with magic marker. And she sang them lullabies. “Potatoes need what children need,” I wrote in Nancy P.’s voice. “Just love and attention, soil and sunlight.”
I was, I realized, saying all that mostly to myself.
Rebecca Rolland is the author of The Art of Talking with Children, forthcoming 3/1/2022 from HarperOne. She is a speech pathologist and lecturer as well as the mom of two young kids. Find her at www.rebeccagrolland.com and on twitter at @rolland_rg.