June 19, 2016

Children’s Lit Issue – “Chou” by M. J. Sterling

Children’s Lit Issue – “Chou” by M. J. Sterling

Editor’s Note: For the final installment of our Children’s Literature Issue, we have an essay by one of our members, M. J. Sterling. She writes about the agony of anticipation that comes with hoping for parenthood.

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In Chou on Spruce and Sacramento one crisp November day while the city reverberated with the tap tap tap of keyboards under blue lights in cardboard cubicles, we were two deserters and a stowaway drifting through the jewel box of smocked, pinstriped, hand-knit and starched cotton treasures as through an enchanted forest. Just past three. Nestled on that too beautiful San Francisco street, clear brilliance of red and blue and green skyline — the city paused here in quiet repose. The owlish shopkeeper in giant black glasses and 50’s polka dot scarf peered into her dog-eared novel. Wispy girls of 7 and 9 ogled their passing reflections and peeked in the open door. And us — in dark denim jeans and leather jackets loosely draped on thin frames, vestiges of single life. Touching tentatively — like tourists ordering lunch in a language they have never seen in print — curious and dreamlike — the pinafores and jumpers and bows. Enchanted. Enchanted by the idea of babies. Enchanted by Chou.

No box store or boutique with garish pink princess bows drew us like the perfumed Chou and its assembled antique rattan cribs, hand-cast paper mache zebra heads and lofty English editions long out of date — Potter, Carroll, and Milne. Giant paint peeling leering clown’s face, rescued from the 20s vaudeville stage — tiny pink kid gloves — even smaller ballet flats graced with a delicate bow. Tulle dresses with raw linen bodices and perfect grosgrain ribbons. Hand-embroidered onesies gaily celebrating the seashore, or ponies, or candy, or ducks. And at the back and sides were just books books books! in perfectly careless stacks and shelves, heartbreakingly lovely literary temples to the dream and reality of childhood.

I was enchanted with Chou and with the promise of parenthood as dreamt by Chou In an agony of terrified and precarious hope I imagined her, and carried myself with cautious grace because I knew she was with me, floating like a thimble in the darkest ocean, blind, hearing nothing, infinitely small heart beat beating and arms waving in aimless repose.

As never before — like Freshmen recently admitted and now stepping on the dewy grass — we felt a tentative belonging, the possibility that this might in time become not an exotic landmark but part of ourselves, the machinery of everyday life — a place one had to go to get a quick party gift or pick up an Easter dress. And you were anxious looking at the handwritten price tags but could not help also being swept away, looking aside and blinking so that I could not see too much relief and lightness cross your face. We were comfortable married people who had worked and built but had almost missed this in the midst of all that working. And now it seemed just maybe we would after all be OK. We might have a baby, and it might even be a girl.

Brooding over a collection of titles that instantly unlocked dormant memories, almost shyly touching Carrol’s Alice, Bemelman’s Madeline, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, then Mary Poppins, Charlotte’s Web, The Little Prince and Peter Pan – there suddenly you glided up behind me to touch my neck (as you had not done in all these years of marriage) and whispered, “Come here,” in a way that softened me for its meaning I am as enchanted as you are my love. Like memories these discoveries in Chou were, to us, dreamlike in their exquisite unreality. And eagerly I turned to follow you, though disguising my eagerness, “Yes, what?” as if you’d interrupted me, for I was not ready to give myself fully to joy, a protective instinct prevailing.

So eagerly yet with my customary guardedness I followed you to the low white shelves behind the cashier. There you displayed on your enormous outstretched palm a pair of the loveliest, tiniest, pink suede shoes. It seemed impossible to me then that an infant would wear these shoes in our house; the everyday pleasures of parenthood seemed fantastical, as probable as one day seeing the blue marble of Earth from space or playing concert violin. Yes, it had been done, someone had done it, but it was not within the scope of my life. And it was too much for me to hope and be heartbroken, so instead I focused on the pleasure of owning such a pair of shoes, regardless of whether they would ever be worn, and smiled nervously and kissed you as I made my way to the cashier with our Chou souvenir.

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M. J. Sterling is an author who has pursued errant apostrophes, swatted spelling bees, and interrogated the whether woman, often in the same day. Her interests include word play, chatting with her anagram and having pun. She lives in a restored Victorian atop a hill in San Francisco with her husband, their magical baby girl, and an absurdly adorable dog.


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