The first book I bought for my son was In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak. He wasn’t born yet and he didn’t have a name, but the ultrasound gave us a clear picture and the very next day, I was off to Kepler’s bookstore. I even inscribed it right there at the register: For my son and his good appetite. It hardly mattered that I had discovered this book in my twenties—it’s supple and squishy illustrations of the bakers who bake till dawn so we can have cake in the morn, spoke to me. At the time I was working ungodly bakers’ hours, sleepwalking the streets of downtown San Francisco to my job in a basement kitchen where I made enormous tubs of muffin batter.
So while my husband went to the paint store for cans of sky blue, my mother bought spools of yarn, and my sister brought over her daughter’s rocking horse, I started my son’s library. Soon his bookshelf held an impressive collection, from The Polar Express, The Giving Tree and Stone Soup, to Rascal, The Phantom Tollbooth, and To Kill a Mocking Bird. But the very first, and the books we read most often, were Sendak’s, such that Max, Mickey and Pierre were part of our family. We read them once, we read them twice, and we always made our chicken soup with rice.
Last year, I listened to Maurice Sendak’s last interview on Fresh Air while driving home. It sounded like Terry Gross was choking back tears, too, when Sendak said, “Almost certainly I will go before you so I won’t have to miss you. I will cry my way all the way to the grave. Live your life, live your life, live your life.” Remembering his earlier interviews, when he said the monsters in The Wild Things Are were modeled after the adults in his life (he had found grown-ups grotesque and never wanted to grow up to look like them with their yellow teeth, big ears and hideous hairs coming out of their noses) I wondered who looked back, when, as an old man, he’d catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Defying the world of adults, I bet he saw a ten year old boy.
Lately, my son has been spending a lot of time at the stove on Sunday mornings— inventing pancakes with sautéed bananas and chocolate, berries and yogurt, and last week, with a potato he dug out of the backyard (a compost gift). I stay out of his way, resisting the urge to butt in and flip the bananas, busying myself with the coffee press and taking photos of his creations to send to friends who inevitably reply “The apple doesn’t fall…,” and all that and I say, “Nah, he just has a good appetite.” I predicted it. More than a few have asked for his deep dish pancake recipe. So on Sunday, we poured milk in the batter and remembered Maurice Sendak, reading In The Night Kitchen out loud for what may have been the thousandth time. It was Mother’s Day, so I sat on a stool with a cup of coffee watching the careful preparation of morning cake with the season’s first cherries.
Thank you Maurice.