In all your three-and-three-quarter years, your dad and I have – on only a few occasions – failed to read you a bedtime story. The first time, it was your birthday and it unfolded full of fanfare and your first sugar high. (You crashed before we had the chance to page through A Birthday for Bird, that antique book I gifted you to mark the occasion of having survived your first year on the planet.) The second time, you were battling pneumonia and informed us you might just prefer to go straight to sleep and read together in the morning instead. (So that’s what you did. We read a half-dozen books before breakfast the next day.) And the third time?
The third time I tried. I really did. But I only made it half way through that Puff the Magic Dragon picture book when I found I could no longer contain the tears.
For the better part of three-and-a-half decades (less the part when I was too small to appreciate the reference), I wondered like everybody whether it was a song inspired by a magical puff of the cheeba. And then, just like that, and for the rest of my life, I’d remember Puff this new way.
For there was that beautifully illustrated Jackie Paper, a kid with a mythical creature for an imaginary friend, who wakes up one day and stops make-believing. The dragon (that poor dragon!) “hangs his head in sorrow, green scales [fall] like rain.” Lonely, he “slips into his cave.” In the song, the dragon dies of broken heart (I know, right?), but to make the picture book version more palatable for a young audience, Puff is merely depressed.
The illustrations advance to some future date when a small girl – enter Puff’s next playmate – arrives in Honalee. The girl’s dad looks on lovingly from a distance. It’s (wait for it) the grown-up Jackie Paper.
And that’s when I think of Rosie.
This is Rosie.
She lives a quarter of the time in your doll house and the rest in the Land of Make-Believe.
She’s one part plastic figurine modeled after a character in some cartoon you never watch. She’s most parts imaginary friend: A mischievous kid whose wayward path you’ve fixed for her and whose voice I supply. (“Mom, be the Rosie! Pretend she got hungry and ate lots of cookies instead of healthy food.”) So, in a pattern of speech that’s a cross between a child and an old lady from Southie with a penchant for cigarettes, I begin: I couldn’t help it! I ate one cookie, and it was really good! So I thought, ‘Meh!’ And I ate all the cookies so now none of the other doll house friends get any! And, as if forgetting that Rosie is a plastic girl – as if choosing to believe she’s a real one, in fact – your face evidences the shock. You look at me, your mother, a third party to The Cookie Jar Rebellion. “Whhhhaaaattt?! Did you hear that?!” I nod. You go on to lecture plastic Rosie about healthy eating habits, bellyaches and diabetes – for a full five minutes. All the while I offer a series of half-hearted apologies in Rosie’s nasally voice. (I’m sorry, but chocolate is my favorite!)
Sometimes, even when the plastic Rosie is out of sight, you talk to her (er, me). You tell her (ahem, me) about your day: the funny thing your friend did on the playground, the way you’re going to go to Disney World in the fall with your mom and dad, how the picture you painted is supposed to be your dad’s face. Sometimes I answer you in Rosie’s voice – Oh, that’s nice, friend! – anxious that if I morph back into mom, you won’t finish sharing that part of you that you’ve reserved just for her.
Look, helping bring Rosie to life this way is exhausting. Each time you make-believe me into your imaginary best friend, I check the urge to insist you don’t have to. (I’m your real best friend. Your very first best friend. Your mother!) The thing is, I recognize that, with Rosie, you have something special. You have something formative. You have something fleeting. So I do my part.
Rosie is your Puff.
And just like Jackie Paper, one day (not tomorrow, but still too soon), you’re going to wake up and stop make-believing. There’ll be no more Rosie. I might well forget the expressions I used, the way I let my voice rise and fall into that strange and strangely familiar inflection to signal I was no more your mom, more your little ginger-headed girlfriend. Maybe I’ll remind you about her one day and you’ll look at me, quizzical. (“Rosie who? Who’s Rosie?”)
That’s how come I never got through the Puff the Magic Dragon picture book that night.
Because even as I never want the era of make-believe and bedtime stories to end, the end is nigh. Because sad as I’ll be to see it go, go it must. Because someday, if I’m doing my job just right, you’ll be so sure, so confident, you won’t need anybody to fill in the blanks of the story you’re telling. You’re just going to tell it, be it, live it. You won’t need anybody – and yet? Yet you’ll have somebodies. You’ll have friends, real-life friends – who aren’t your mom. (Though, of course, you’ll have me, too.)
Now, some of those friends you’ll have for a good long time, maybe even a lifetime. Others you’ll have for a while: the second semester of your senior year of high school, your four years of college, the stint you spend working for the same company. You won’t be able to think to that era of your life without thinking of them, the fun you had and – even if you can’t remember what fun exactly – the way you just plain liked them, respected them, found them funny or interesting. Over time, maybe you’ll forget their names or even their faces. But, I promise you, girlie: Like Rosie, they’re going to shape you. They’re going to test you. They’re going to inspire you. They’re going to teach you how to be with your fellow people. And you’ll be better off for knowing them.
And that’s how come, the next day, I finished reading that story.
Even so, I’m really going to miss Rosie.