My high school yearbook asked graduating seniors to share their goals for the future, and while most wrote “college” or “work,” I announced a loftier purpose: I would “get published and marry Holden Caulfield,” the rebellious and angst-filled narrator and main character in “The Catcher in the Rye.”
High school Shannon said nothing about her hope to be a mother; that seemed too obvious, like stating the ambition “to breathe.” To replicate ourselves in blood and flesh is a primal drive, one that makes humans do crazy things in its service, like imagining neurotic Holden as marriage material (and as a father? Forget it).
But “The Catcher in the Rye” wasn’t the book that inspired my career dreams. “Heidi” is the book that really changed my life. Yes, that Heidi, the uncomplicated tale of a cheerful Swiss orphan and her gruff grandfather. It was the first “real” book, one with long chapters and very few pictures, read all on my own, with no help from my parents. As I turned the final page, I knew what my life’s purpose would be: someday I would write a book! A “real” one! With my name on the cover and everything!
That was possibly the most important part: MY NAME. In my seven-year-old universe that conferred importance, dignity, validation. I’d have done something that would last. I would be immortal.
Interestingly, these are many of the reasons people cite for having children. I’ll admit right here that I thought my children would complete me. They didn’t, and crucially, they shouldn’t. Some parents learn this lesson quickly. Others spend a lifetime reckoning with it.
My first book entered the world in the fall of 2014, when United Parcel Service delivered a large box to my doorstep. I opened it as carefully as my midwives eased my babies’ large heads out of my body. I selected one copy and I flipped through its 175 pages, inhaling its scent of fresh paper and ink. I put it on a shelf. I smiled.
I waited for the earth to move, for my awareness to alter, for the shifting kaleidoscope of my life to shake into focus. My children hugged me, then asked if I knew that a cat barfed on the kitchen floor.
Did the author of “Heidi,” Johanna Spyri, experience this existential crisis? An unverified web page on Swiss history claims she was “depressive;” her son Bernhard was 24 years old when the book was published. Did its instant success make Spyri happier? Did the book provide comfort when Bernhard died of consumption at 28?
Neither of my children has read “Heidi,” or my own books – the “real” ones with my name on their covers. I suspect that I could write the next 12 volumes of Spiderman comics and they’d remain unimpressed. Every time I try to control our narrative, it falls apart. It is humbling. It is painful. Reconciling myself to this might be the hardest work I’ll ever do.
My old copy of “Heidi” didn’t accompany my journey from youth to adulthood, so on a recent library trip I wandered into Children’s Fiction: S, where I found a copy with a cover illustration of a girl and her goat. I flipped through the first few pages, expecting to be transported.
I wasn’t. “Heidi” isn’t that great a book after all! Immortality is not only impossible, it’s overrated.
I put the book back on the shelf and went home, where my kids were waiting for me to make them dinner.
Shannon Drury lives in Minneapolis and is the author of a political memoir, “The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century.”