Over and Over

picturebookmonth square 200x200 Over and Over“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.”

zolotow overandover 222x300 Over and OverWhen 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.”

This article is part of our Picture Book Month 2012 coverage. Click here to read the classic Horn Book article Making Picture Books: The Words by Charlotte Zolotow.

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Crescent Dragonwagon About Crescent Dragonwagon

Crescent Dragonwagon’s newest book is All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep (Little, Brown), illustrated by David McPhail.

Comments

  1. This is a stunning and inspiring piece. Thank you, Crescent Dragonwagon! I hope you won’t mind my sharing this with other writers and creative people through my social networks. You tell a story within a story here about writing, craft, process, and life that I feel is worth seeing by as many people as possible!

  2. Thank you for that wonderful piece.

  3. What a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Thank you for this beautiful piece, which I found through Harold Underdown and Emma Dryden. Over and Over is dearly loved in our family–a touchstone book not only for me, but also for my young daughter, who finds magic in its pages and refers to it spontaneously in conversation. It’s a book with many layers, and now, with this essay, it has even more. My warmest thanks to you and your mother for your words.

    • Thank you, Amy. Over and Over has always been a personal favorite of mine, too. And with new meaning in this phase of Charlotte’s and my journey. I was happy to be able to write about it here.

  5. Thank you, Crescent. My mother and I are similar ages to you and Charlotte. We went through the same period of anger–like she was fighting herself to stay herself. Now, her words are less frequent and jumbled. But she still has a beautiful smile for me. My mother was a great lover of books. thank Charlotte for creating so many books for us.

    • Mary, it is a remarkable journey we take — in our own lives, and as helpers to those younger and older — each of us one link in life’s chain. I do tell CZ often how many people her books have and do touch, and I will again — for and from you. Thank you.

  6. An awesome portrait of a daughter and a mother- who happens to be a legend, as well as a tribute to Charlotte’s life and accomplishments, and her prescient view of the cycles of life. I just lost my mom about a year ago and went through similar struggles and readjustments. But as you mentioned, it was a surprisingly rich and wonderful time at the end. Best wishes to you and your mom, and thank you.

    • Thank you, Ann, and condolences on your loss. Readjustments: exactly. I suppose life is one readjustment after another. I am glad for you, and for Charlotte and me, that the ending came for your mother and you, and is coming for Charlotte and me, on a note of sweetness rather than struggle or anger.

  7. Meg Diskin says:

    What a marvelous tribute to a long and happy life; I have read your mother’s books for many years to my own children, and your essay taught me a great deal about the woman who wrote them. My own mother was an author of poetry for children, and sadly she died at 60, much too young. Reading the words your mother said to you, makes me think my mother would have felt the same, and helps me heal from the loss which happened nearly 20 years ago. Thank you.

  8. What a wonderful insight into a great author and her relationship with her daughter. Thanks for posting this, Emma.

  9. Over and Over was a favorite bedtime read for my daughter and I, the softcover book in the late 90’s. We loved the illustrations (I’m an illustrator) and the fact my daughter’s birthday, too, came between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We loved the turning of every page, every sentence, every new turning of the year. I lost my mother over a year ago, and identify with the loss of Charlotte as she was, of all elders as they were. My mother was also sharp, demanding, and often witholding, but became a woman who just wanted to watch the birds out the window. This chapter of aging holds a deep wonder of it’s own. Thank you, Crescent, for making such magic out of a monumental turning of the page.

    • Thank you, Jamie. It is my privilege to have been able to live through this — the pieces on my own, and those with Charlotte, and then to write about it. That others are finding resonance, and even letting me know, is gravy! THANK YOU. I am sorry for your loss, but glad that you were left not empty-handed, but full of “deep wonder”, as you say.

  10. Crescent,
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story of life…yours and your Mom’s!
    I can relate, as I moved in with my grandparents when I was a Sr. In High School to help them out, and stay there for college….neither grandparent had to move to a nursing home! I have always been so happy I did that not only for them, but for me.
    Now, over 30 years later we are adjusting to my Dad’s death, in July. Wow life goes on….
    Blessings to you and Charlotte!

    • Everyone who goes through it, as you have, William, knows how hard it is — how much it takes — but right side by side with that, how much it gives. THANK YOU, and blessings to you as you work with all the death of a father presents to you…

  11. As always, your words put so graciously, the thoughts and feelings of so many of us. You and your mother are blessed to have each other and the magnificient caregivers you have found. May you enjoy many more days with her as the cycle of life continues….

  12. Carla Hunter Southwick says:

    Crescent, you and I are the same age. I grew up with your mother’s books and read them to my children and grandchildren, and just this week a fresh batch of them arrived in the mail to read to my 5 year old granddaughter, among them “Over and Over”. I have read it to myself several times since it arrived, in delicious anticipation of the first time my granddaughter and I will enjoy it together. Yes – a classic.
    I also ordered “The Storm”, to help her and her brother process the experience of the recent Hurricane here in New Jersey. I want them to regain an appreciation for the beauty of storms, and not to simply dread them.
    I lost my mother when she was 82, and I wasn’t able to be with her anywhere near as often as I longed to be in those final years, but I identify so much with what you have shared about your journey with Charlotte, and the transitions and the new joys along with the sad changes which we are never ready for. I rejoice with you when I read about all the comforts which you’ve been able to put in place around her. The simplest joys are the most profound.
    Thank you for this essay. I was so blessed by it.

    • Thank you so much, Carla, for these generous words. I am so glad that Charlotte’s and my journey resonates for you, so happy you love Over and Over, and oh my word, how wise to think of “The Storm Book” following Sandy! And, I am sad that you lost your mother too soon. There is no “why” to the whens and hows and coming and goings — at least none that we can know definitively… yet still we ask and ask, or I do… And, also, so pleased that you are enjoying “All the Awake”. I feel David’s extraordinary illustrations just make that book.

  13. Carla Hunter Southwick says:

    I should add that I LOVE your book, All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep! That’s going under the tree for my little insomniac / night time party girl, Clari. I hope she’ll be as suggestible as I am, because it put me into a dream state at the first read.

  14. Linda Bogaard says:

    I agree with all of the previous comments, and also thank you for graciously sharing these tender, loving thoughts about your mother and her journey and your journey together. I was an elementary school teacher and then librarian for 39 years. Charlotte’s books were/are among my favorites year after year. The book club I’m in just read and discussed Still Alice by Lisa Genova, so your thoughts and observations were especially meaningful. God bless and keep you both.

  15. Sharon Bandhold says:

    Crescent, you did not loosely stay in the family business. You are supremely, phenomenally great writer! I read everything you post on FB, but this piece is just so poignant that it brought me to tears. Have to admit that, tho I have an unofficial foster mother, you made the hole in my heart that comes with not having your mother from infancy, perhaps, a little bigger (she became ill when I was 3 & died when I was 9), but that’s o.k. because you’ve inspired me to write about it. And, I’m a Youth Services Librarian, & now I HAVE to read “Over & Over”, & share it over & over. Many thanks, & a very happy early birthday.

    • Sharon, I think you should write about ” the hole in my heart that comes with not having your mother from infancy.” Whether published or unpublished, essay or children’s book, journal or poems, one of writing’s great gifts to the writer is its ability to let us integrate the impossible things into our lives and draw still more meaning and understanding from them. Hard things happen anyway, seemingly randomly — to be able to use them add sweetness to the bitter.

      And, THANK YOU for your generous assessment of my work!

  16. Crescent, you are a wonder. I hope your mother can feel love streaming toward her from all over the world.

  17. I still fondly remember the writing workshop you gave at Joy Fox’s place outside of Fayettevile, AR.Thank you for sharing your heartfelt writing about your mother. I’m glad you are, at least virtually, close-by once again…(Eureka Springs is close to Fayetteville). I’m looking forward to more and varied sweet times with you. Rita Ward

    • I loved teaching there… actually, I always love teaching Fearless. Changes with each particular group of students, and also develops as I age. What a privilege to get to do it! And then… people who take it occasionally write me and tell me that they, too, enjiyed it or received something that helped them… wow! Am I liucky or what?! xxoo

  18. Absolutely beautiful ! Thank you for sharing it.

  19. Gorgeous. Touching. Inspiring. Thank you, Crescent. Thanks you, Charlotte!

  20. It was such a privilege to hear you read your version of Over and Over at the Arkansas Reading Association conference in Little Rock. I’ve purchased your mother’s original version and will share it with my 2 young grandsons. Also, I write a bi-monthly electronic newsletter for educators and have recommended Over and Over and your own version to my readers. I’ve included your email on the December newsletter. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you do very much, Clara. That was the first public read-aloud I’d done of the story, to the ARA group, and I was so glad everyone liked it, and that you did so enough to include it and a recommendation of Over and Over in your e-newsletter. I am grateful, on my own behalf and Charlotte’s.

  21. Karen Aroian says:

    Thank you so much for this exquisite tribute to your mother, one of my absolute favorite children’s book authors. I read nearly all of Charlotte Zolotow’s books to my two daughters, who are eighteen months apart. They asked for Over and Over over and over, and Big Sister and Little Sister calmed their tempers like nothing else. Your mother inspired them to call each other “sister” for years. Now in their twenties, they are great friends, singers, speakers, and writers. I’m sure that the fluency of these lyrical classics helped. Thank you for writing, and please thank her for her gift to the world.

    I, too, am in my fifties. Earlier this month, I held and kissed my mother for the last time. Mom bravely battled Parkinson’s Disease for 15 years. Every other month, I flew from central Texas, where I live, to central Massachusetts, where I grew up, to care for her and lend a week’s worth of support to my dad. Mom also had two compassionate aides, one from Ghana and one who loved my parents so much, she and her family moved into the third floor apartment of my parents’ three-decker, which was, and still is, a godsend to my dad.

    I felt the pain and privilege of being with my mother when she died. Mom had quit school at 16 to support two dying parents and four siblings. She managed to get her parents out of debt, bought them their own home, and then helped pay her brother’s college tuition before landing in the hospital with thyroid cancer. She graduated from high school with her GED four years before me—and later survived two bouts of breast cancer. She was a survivor. Through it all, she maintained a sweet sense of humor and a fierce will to live.

    As the demonic force of Parkinson’s steadily descended, we made sure we repeatedly said everything we wanted to say to each other. In the end, she couldn’t speak. Knowing that her hearing would be the last to go, I continued to thank her again and again, telling her how much I loved her and wished her grand adventures ahead.

    Now, into a new normal I go, putting one foot in front of the other, breathing deeply, keeping friends and family close, and feeling grateful. One happy day, I hope to read your mother’s books to grandchildren, over and over, again and again. To be sure, I will sprinkle stories in of my own mother, relishing both women for their passion, their grace, and their love.

  22. It was long, but oh so endearing. Warm and wise. It reminded me of the time I had to travel back to my beginnings in Australia, and help my dear mother wind up her trailing affairs. The time we spent together is still with me. A comfort. A warm well of memories. And I am oh so grateful for the healing and sharing hours. Likely Charlotte/s daughter feels the same.

  23. This is a sincere, honest and beautiful portrait.

  24. Beautiful, Crescent. I am going through a similar situation with my father-in-law. The ‘hard’ thing I’m writing about…

  25. Thank you, Crescent, for writing this beautiful tribute to your mother, all mothers and children, and the passage of time. Reading it brought tears to my eyes; then, I realized it was first posted on my own mother’s birthday. She would have turned 93. What a wonderful present!

  26. What a beautiful description of this time of life. Please wish your mother a happy birthday from the whole wide world.

  27. Miss Kathleen says:

    Greetings Ms. Dragonwagon-

    I am on a mission to find a lovely children’s book that my sister referenced as she eulogized my mom. She said she read it in early grade school with my mother- spoke of the beauty of the words – the illustrations – looking forward- The end- begin again.

    Does this sound familiar? I would love to find a copy and give it to my sister as we all grieve the loss of our mother – and her gentle spirit. If this is the right book, I would love to send you a copy of the eulogoy- I think you would be pleased and perhaps your mom would smile and my mother would have that she had such a lovely impact on my mother and sister.

  28. Such a powerful and moving tribute! You are your mother too.

  29. Thank you, Crescent, for this loving and insightful tribute to Charlotte and all of our aging parents and grandparents. I have been helping my own parents through a similar experience of “letting go of time” and found your words to be insightful, beautiful and true. Thank you for sharing.

  30. Linda, I am so glad to have been able to articulate parts of this journey so many of us go through, either as, or first as, caregivers/adult children, eventually as elders ourselves. Mysterious, tough, beautiful. You are so welcome.

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  1. […] I’ll feature Home Place a favorite picture book of mine written by Crescent Dragonwagon.  www.hbook.com/2012/11/authors-illustrators/over-and-over/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Category : Children's […]

  2. […] tribute, we’ve collected two essays Charlotte wrote for the Horn Book as well as one Crescent (we’ve long since made up) wrote about her mother for us last year. Goodbye, Great Lady. Filed Under: Featured, Obituaries, Read Roger Tagged […]

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