Seuss is gonne, but his treasures reach a new generation

Kelly Gilbert

September 30, 1991|By Kelly Gilbert

MY SON had just told me of the imminent birth of his first child when I left the office, picked up an Evening Sun final edition at a newsstand, and learned of the death of Dr. Seuss.

It was a juxtaposition that threw this hardened, seen-it-all newspaper reporter onto an emotional roller coaster ride of unparalleled joy at the top and extreme sadness at the bottom. I could hardly wait for the birth of my grandson, who was born the next KellyGilbertday. But Theodor Seuss Geisel has always held a special place in my heart.

There was a time, many years ago, when I delighted in sitting on the sofa with my mother, listening to her read, over and over, "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins." Perhaps that initial attraction was natural; Bartholomew came to life about the same time I did.

Later, when I could manage more than the Dick and Jane primers that Geisel abhorred, I regularly spent the hours between school and dinner reading and re-reading that marvelous tale, enraptured by the magic in the drawings and sympathetic to Bartholomew's inability to take off his hat before his king.

In those days, Dr. Seuss was simply fun to read; the realization did not strike me until fatherhood that Geisel peddled satire as much as whimsy. This legendary author of children's books created characters who subtly but firmly instilled in his readers, young and old, the human basics of good triumphing over evil, of morality, hope and humor. Geisel disdained, even hated, pomposity (homage to the king in "The 500 Hats. . . "), Hitlerian fascism (in "Yertle the Turtle"), environmental destruction (in "The Lorax") and misuse of political power by the likes of Richard Nixon (in "Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now?").

There was a time, after the births of our own children, that my wife and I could hardly get through a day without sitting on the couch and reading "Green Eggs and Ham" to our son and, later, our daughter. It's a family tradition that Dr. Seuss is still quoted -- verbatim -- in our light-hearted conversations.

For some brief moment, back then, I thought my bright son had learned to read at a pre-school age -- until one night when I was in a hurry. He had been "reading" about Sam-I-Am aloud with me, not missing a word, when I purposely turned two pages ahead.

"Daddy, you missed, 'Do you like them in a box? Do you eat them with a fox?' " he said, insisting that I read the skipped passage to make his day complete. He had heard the tale so often he had it memorized!

There was a time when Geisel came to Westminster on a book tour, and I was assigned to interview him. He was witty and urbane, but more given to regaling the assembled reporters with sophisticated tales involving his New York ramblings with his late friend and publisher, Bennet Cerf, than discussing his own works. I was awe-struck in the presence of a boyhood hero, but I managed to scribble the oft-repeated formula for his success: "I don't write for children, I speak to them, on their level."

There was a time, a Christmas or two ago, when my sister gave me a 50th anniversary edition of "The 500 Hats . . ." It was the best present I got that day. The holiday stopped while I read it yet again.

There will be a time, soon, when I raise my grandson onto my knee and lead him into that wonderful world of Sam-I-Am, the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, Horton, and the Whos in Whoville. As we giggle our way through "Green Eggs and Ham," as the generation gap closes for a moment, I'm certain that my son will be somewhere within earshot, smiling at a memory, silently mouthing the words to one of his favorite childhood stories.

Now, as a new life in the East replaces a death in California, I'm ecstatic at my family's gain and deeply saddened by the loss of an extraordinary man who is an integral part of my being.

Yet Dr. Seuss' legacy remains. He validated children as human beings, albeit small ones -- like the Whos? -- with his colorful, concocted language, skewed animal figures and unbending *T humor. He drew parents and grandparents into sharing with their offspring the experiences that celebrate life itself.

And there are all those treasures on my bookshelf. Now I have someone to share them with again.

Kelly Gilbert is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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