Getting kids to bed at night can be tough.
Though it has been several years since I've put my son to bed, I remember those days. It was more than tucking him in and giving him a kiss on the head if I wanted him to settle down. I reached back to my childhood days and the bedtime routine my father invented.
Bedtimes were tough for me and my younger sister. We were the “babies” of the family and wanted to hang-out with our two big sisters and brother, to be in the flow of things and a part of the crowd.
So getting us up the stairs to bed took a bit of imagination.
There we were in our nightgowns, clean and scrubbed fresh out of the tub, teeth brushed, entrenched on the couch, refusing to move.
It was time for my father to take action.
We heard the cellar door open, stomping feet, a low growl. My father jumped into view holding a broom. We screamed, grabbed pillows from the couch, and charged.
Pillow attack! Time to “clobber” dad.
Visitors were shocked. Here were two little girls in their nightgowns, screeching and running away from a big man with a broom.
The screaming and growling continued as we dashed up the stairs to our bedroom, running away from the growling wolf, who then transformed into a plodding Frankenstein.
We threw ourselves onto our beds and grabbed our big pillows. Thanks to the pillowcase, they were easier to swing. Stomping footsteps punctuated with low growls followed us. Then we heard the broom handle as it was raked along the wooden banister.
The growling was coming closer. Our screeching crescendoed.
Then: BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
The thumping was outside the bedroom door. Dad had made it to the top of the stairs and was slamming the broom on the landing. The wolf was about to enter our room. With a final “Arrghhhh!” he lifted the broom and charged.
Another pillow attack. We then settled down as dad began the next chapter in the ongoing story of the “Big Fish.”
What was the big fish? I later discovered it was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a big fish indeed. It was the great “killer” white whale that Captain Ahab searched for each time he set out to sea. It was his enemy, his nemesis.
Dad was a career World War II Naval Veteran, a commander and as some have told me “an officer of the deck.” He was well-acquainted with ships, giving orders, storms at sea, and of course the nautical vocabulary.
My siblings and I quickly learned the meaning of starboard (right), port (left). Long before this, dad demonstrated what “steer a steady course” meant as he headed down a two-way street, refusing to give up his right of way. If it meant the other driver suddenly swung back to his side of the street narrowly avoiding a head-on collision, so be it.
And of course, my father had the typical sailor’s mouth. I could swear before I could say “mama.” Please note that my dad didn’t swear at us, just within earshot. That was enough. Though no one but me took a liking to such words.
My poor mother claimed she didn’t know the handsome officer in his dress whites knew such words.
Denial is not a river in Egypt.
The Big Fish, evil beast that it was, had killed a sailor and bitten off Captain Ahab’s leg. He had a wooden peg, like any reputable sailor or captain. As the typhoon threatened to capsize the Pequod, the name of the ship, the big fish attacked.
He rammed the ship, swam under it, and swung his tail.
Sailors screamed in fear of the white monster. Would they become his next meal?
It made me glad my father was no longer at sea and would never become a victim of the big fish. His ship had been bigger than the Pequod and did not require sails. Still, this was a pretty big fish, so better to stay on the land.
My sister and I were transfixed by dad’s stories and as the drama unfolded, we were lulled into a hypnotic state by visions of waves washing over the deck, sailors struggling against the wind, and the ship listing to one side in danger of capsizing.
Our pillows were now the soft vessels where we could lay our heads. Our eyes remained fixated as dad ended the latest chapter. Sleep was approaching, but not quite yet.
Now was the perfect time for our prayers. Dad always said his and he made sure we always said ours.
I remember him kneeling in front of the radiator as he looked out the window over the ocean. It seemed to me that dad had very long conversations with God. He did this without fail every night of his life. I’m sure he had a lot to talk about.
Our prayers were the traditional Our Father, aka The Lord’s Prayer, and the Catholic Hail Mary, Mary being the name of God’s mother. It seemed only fair to me that God’s mother got equal time. She was his mother after all and she’d been through a lot.
My favorite, and the final prayer, was to my guardian angel, who was charged with watching over me while I slept. He or she was there just for me. I had my very own to watch over me, but you had to ask for their protection.
And put an “amen” at the end to make it official.
I haven’t thought about my childhood bedtime ritual for 50 years. It’s funny how memories disappear and resurface.
It was a time of innocence from long ago that still holds a special place in my heart.
Dad died almost 10 years ago at the age of 94. Though the ritual ended, what didn’t were dad’s nighttime prayers. They were a constant in his life almost until the day he passed.
So was storytelling.
And now this memory of him is another story. One that I will pass along to my grandchildren.
That means dad will live on, too.
Photo: Pirates by Tumisu on Pixabay