Last month, we invited readers to share their responses to a writing prompt inspired by Julie Lehman’s essay, Ten Books. We asked readers to tell us about a favorite book that serves as a ritual for their family and what that ritual means to them. Below is Kristin Duckworth’s response.
What Makes a Home?
By Kristin Duckworth
We first read Peggy Rathmann’s delightful Good Night, Gorilla when our oldest son was a young toddler, and we’d recently moved to our new home in Amman, Jordan. It was exactly the kind of silly book he liked, and we fell in love with reading it slowly, examining each page for the hidden things to spot: the balloon slowly floating up into the night sky; the backlit figure watching from a neighboring window that becomes two figures, then three as the story plays out; the mouse’s banana on a string, trailing along behind as he cheerfully follows in the gorilla’s wake. It quickly became the one book we had to read every night. We read it to our middle son when we moved back to Virginia, his big brother snuggling up next to us to listen more nights than not. These days we read it to our daughter here in Quito, Ecuador. She loves the same things the boys did, making sure to look for those details every time, insisting that we do the surprised face of the zookeeper’s wife when she finds the gorilla in her bed. It’s usually the last book we read before kissing her and depositing her in her crib where she’ll fall asleep, her bottom lifted in the air and her cheek pressed against her butterfly sheet.
Good Night, Gorilla has been a constant in our family for years, and it would be easy to attribute that to its silliness, or its unexpected story, or the winning grin of the gorilla as it pockets the zookeeper’s keys and releases the other animals. But the story, for us, means far more than that. As we’ve moved across oceans and continents, we see it as the story of a determined optimist who makes his home where those he loves are, even if it’s not a natural fit. It’s also the story of the brave little creature who joins the gorilla on his adventure, taking along the thing that will make a home for them both—even if that’s just a banana on a string. It’s the story of people who respond to crazy situations and unanticipated events with humor, grace, and resolve, and in the process expand the meaning of family. At its heart, it’s the story of us.
When we read the book now, our older boys will sometimes drift into the room, sitting on the floor together. I know they’re listening, remembering the book from when they were small. I know they’ll have sweet memories of Rathmann’s words and pictures, and that maybe one day they’ll buy a copy for their own children and read it to their babies with familiar warmth and joy. But I hope they also remember those deeper things, the ones not written down. I hope, like the balloon that can be found in page after page, smaller and smaller as it floats away, that qualities like optimism, humor, adventure, and love weave throughout the story in their minds and their hearts. And I hope, wherever we are, they always remember what makes a home.
Kristin Duckworth has been, among other things, an Air Force officer, American Sign Language interpreter, meeting planner, nanny, and voice actress—all providing a great deal of fodder for her writing habit. She makes homes around the world with her husband, a Foreign Service officer. They are currently posted in Quito, Ecuador, with their three young children.