“Once there was a little girl who didn’t understand about time.”
So, with deceptive simplicity — for who, of any age, does understand time? — did my mother, Charlotte Zolotow, begin her book Over and Over, first published in 1957.
As I write these words today, Charlotte is ninety-seven and I am fifty-nine. I see to her care. When she wrote Over and Over, she was forty-two and I was four, and she saw to mine. It is also fall, maybe her last on this green-and-gold spinning globe. At this intersection Over and Over, about cycles, seems to me celebratory, bittersweet, and comforting. Its meaning and its text — first read aloud to me by my mother before I was myself able to read — seem almost as enduring as the cycles of death and renewal themselves.
Twenty-eight years after its original publication, Over and Over was reissued in hardcover in 1985, then published again in paperback in 1995. The unnamed little girl in Over and Over, who doesn’t understand about time (and note, please, that Charlotte did not add the word yet), is at a cusp, the border between the hardly differentiated passage of days, weeks, and months and a dawning sense of memory. She hasn’t connected what makes sequential time, but she does hold pieces of it; they move, unconnected, in a dreamlike déjà vu. This happened before…didn’t it?
“She was so little that she didn’t know about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Charlotte wrote. “She certainly didn’t know about January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December. She was so little she didn’t even know summer, winter, autumn, spring.” And how thoughtful of Charlotte to kindly enumerate these compass points, just in case a young listener might be in the same predicament as the little girl.
“She remembered a crocus once, but she didn’t know when,” Charlotte continued. “She remembered a snowman and a pumpkin, and a Christmas tree, and a birthday cake, a Thanksgiving dinner and valentines. But they were all mixed up in her mind.”
When the little girl awakens one morning to snow, her excitement is palpable; at least to her mother, who, slowly and gently, explains winter. But the little girl has a question: “What comes next?” She and her mother continue through seasons and holidays, noting spring rabbits, summer vacations, and “the ghosts and witches and tigers and tramps and devils” that come at Halloween. After each explanation, the little girl asks her mother, “What comes next?” Thus the book travels a full turn on the year’s wheel.
Those who study children’s literature might describe Over and Over as a concept book, for it teaches the concept of time’s passage — life’s cycles, days, weeks, and months adding up to a year, which then repeats. But that classification no more captures Over and Over’s essence than a chloroformed butterfly pinned to black velvet touches a living monarch fanning its wings on the petals of a red bergamot blossom. The essence of Over and Over is its blend: everyday and wondrous; the reassurance of routine and predictable cycles and the exhilaration of large and small miracles that come and go. Over and Over gets across a life-force: the alternating current of permanence with transition.
Now, as Charlotte approaches a hundred years, she and the little girl in Over and Over stand at similar cusps. The little girl is leaving babyhood, the timelessness of life’s beginning, to enter childhood and the eventual time-bound phases of adulthood; Charlotte is in the process of returning to a state unbound by time. All the things she has seen, done, and experienced in her long, interesting life are, as Over and Over put it, “mixed up in her mind.” She too is dreamlike. Sometimes people, objects, and ideas she remembers break from the depths and float up. Sometimes she communicates what has surfaced to me and her other caregivers, usually without context. But unlike the little girl, she does not ask, “What comes next?” It seems this is no longer an important question.
That things are “mixed up in her mind” does not, at this point, upset her; rather, her glimpses of déjà vu delight her (and those of us who hear them). Charlotte has shown me that one need not go to a yogi’s cave in India to “be here now.” Just get old enough. You lose the past and its wounds, as well as the future, with its anticipated losses. There’s just now. And now, for Charlotte, who is not in pain but is safe and warm in her own home, surrounded by people who love her and look after her well, with frequent visits from a much-loved black-and-white cat named Tumbleweed who sleeps with her…now is generally a wondrous place to be.
Still, the past does surface. Many afternoons, during the week each month I spend with her, I’ll go out on a walk. If she’s awake when I leave the house, I reprise a version of the lines from her book Do You Know What I’ll Do? In that book, an older sibling tells a much younger one, “Do you know what I’ll do on my walk? I’ll look at the clouds and tell you the shapes when I get home.” If Charlotte’s awake when I return from the quiet streets of her small suburban Hudson River town, I’ll say, “Charlotte, do you remember those delicate, airy white wildflowers that’re called Queen Anne’s lace?” A smile will break over her face, like sun coming up over the horizon, lighting the hills. And she’ll reply, with some variation of “I didn’t…until you reminded me of it just now.” When I describe people, and the dogs they are walking, or children getting ice cream from a truck, or a cat glimpsed in a window, her response is simply, “Awww…” smiling; a response which conveys, “How adorable! How marvelous!”
This peaceful state has continued for about two years. Oh, how she suffered before that, when she began to lose linear time! She yelled at me, and everyone around her, a lot. Everything infuriated her. Bed rails. The wrong flavor of ice cream. “I KNOW that!” “Don’t do that!” “You don’t understand me, you never have!” “The coffee wasn’t even hot, they brought me lukewarm coffee! If they brought you cold coffee, wouldn’t you be angry?” A brutal phase. We went through seventeen caregivers in three years. I found notebooks and calendars she’d kept earlier, in which she’d written “Monday THEN Tuesday Wednesday wedsday remenber THINK CHARLOTTE think” and similar disjointed self-reminders, some written many times. That phase of aging is heartbreaking; elders have not yet let go, but though they grip furiously, they know that they cannot keep holding on. I saw my aunt, Charlotte’s older sister, go through a similar phase. They were both so angry at what they perceived as pending helplessness. I grieved for and with my aunt and with Charlotte. I tried to be patient. If you know that control of your own life is slipping away, I came to understand, you try to control everyone else’s.
I could not have anticipated that things were about to change.
As I said, I spend one week each month with Charlotte, in her home — the same home in which I grew up, and where she still lives. Her bedroom is now downstairs, not upstairs. And she lives not alone, as she did from age sixty to eighty-two, nor with two children and a husband, as she did when she was a young wife and mother. Her days are shared with round-the-clock caregivers, Jamaican and African. Young, Charlotte loved the music of Vivaldi and Telemann. I made an effort to have CDs by these composers played for her, especially when she was waking up. But now she seems, improbably, to much prefer the music of the Senegalese singer Yossou N’Dour, introduced by Hawa, her Mauritanian-Guinean caregiver.
How can I tell? I never saw Charlotte dance to Vivaldi or Telemann or, for that matter, dance at all. But now — even though she is bed-bound and can no longer stand, I have seen her sit forward some mornings, when she is partially raised in her hospital bed, and simply sway, smiling. Sometimes she even lifts her arms, moving them in time to the marimbas, the gentle acoustic beat, N’Dour’s voice singing in words neither of us understands. Moving in time to. Time again: these moments are in time yet out of it. I am amazed. My mother?
As brilliant and insightful a writer as she was, Charlotte was also (when she was in what we call, perhaps wrongly, her “right mind”) often demanding, perfectionist, tense, and driven (you don’t write more than a hundred children’s books and become vice-president of a major New York publishing house without being driven). To see her now swaying, smiling… and to ask her, “Are you happy?” and hear her say, “Yes,” and not, “Yes, but…” is an undreamt-of privilege and surprise.
Charlotte divorced her husband (my father, show business biographer Maurice Zolotow) in 1969; they remained friendly, however, until his death in 1991. As for the children, they grew up and moved away, as children do. Charlotte’s son, my brother, Stephen, grew up to be a professional poker player. I stayed, loosely, in the family business: literature.
A few years back I was sitting in an attorney’s office with Stephen. Charlotte’s royalties were being discussed. “Well, some of her books,” said my brother, who is highly literate in finance, “are always going sell, like Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. They’re — what would you call them, cash cows?” I looked at him, bemused, and said, “In the trade, we call them ‘classics.’” Though straight faces and a flat emotional affect are de rigueur in both poker and law, both my brother and the attorney half-smiled.
A classic, by definition, endures.
The point at which Charlotte’s Over and Over protagonist steps into the river of time is winter: the first event discussed is snow; the first holiday, Christmas. The girl and her mother travel on through Valentine’s Day, Easter, spring, summer, seasons, and celebrations. Finally, after Thanksgiving, seemingly replete with the wonders of the year, the little girl asks, “Does anything come now?”
“‘Oh, yes,’ said her mother. ‘The next thing that comes is a very special day. Your birthday!’”
Birthdays: mine is late November — yes, after Thanksgiving, like the little girl. My mother’s is in June.
Charlotte dozed during the first part of her last birthday party. So perhaps when she asked me, “What did I miss?” she may have meant while she was half-asleep that day, listening as people came and went, as food was eaten and bottle caps flipped, as laughter and conversation rose and fell. But I chose a different context. “Well, Charlotte,” I said, “It’s your ninety-seventh birthday today, we’re on your porch for the party, and let’s see…you wrote many, many books, and you helped hundreds of other people write their books. And you read thousands of books. You were married, you had two children, you had a lover…You had a garden, and you traveled all over America and went to Europe several times. You were head of a department. You went to great museums. You had a poodle named Cleo and now you have a cat named Tumbleweed. You ate Chinese food and French food, and Italian and Indian food, and now, today, you’re eating African and Jamaican food…I don’t think you missed much!”
Charlotte started smiling as I began this recitation, and her smile grew wider and wider as I continued. She began to laugh. When I finished she said, “Good!” Not long after that, we brought out the cake and, with help, she blew out the candles.
When the little girl does that in Over and Over, she makes a wish. “‘What did you wish?’ everyone asked her. ‘I wished for it all to happen again,’ the little girl said. And of course, over and over, year after year, it did.”
So ends Over and Over, a book that will last, I believe, as classics do. But Charlotte herself will not and cannot last. I will grieve all the harder, I think, yet also be better able to let go, because of the surprise of our time together now; a gift following a relationship which, though close, was always conflicted.
When a parent dies, a life ends, and another life is permanently altered. Something that was is no more. It can’t all “happen again.”
And yet. I will be left, when Charlotte goes, not only with her books and the cycles themselves that she enumerated so well but with something she said to me recently. It was late. We were having a long, rambling conversation, which happens rarely but occasionally. I never know if such a conversation will be our last, since there are days when Charlotte does not speak at all. We were in the dark, me sitting by the hospital bed in the room that had once been the family living room but is now her bedroom.
Charlotte has lost many teeth. She speaks softly and slowly, so to hear her I had to lean in closely and listen with full attention.
Here is what she said that night: “Since I’ve had all the days…and they…were wonderful…I want you…to do the same.”