Irina's Wishes


October 05, 1992|By PAMELA TANTON

Being unemployed, I had the opportunity to spend much of the summer with the children in my neighborhood. When you've been an adult for a while, you tend to forget how it is to be a child, but if you just talk to children for a little while, it all starts to come back.

We read a lot of stories together, and I was sorry to learn that there are still princesses being locked away from the world in towers by their fathers, to be rescued, eventually, by princes. I remember loving those stories when I was a kid, but I don't remember ever discussing how wrong it is for fathers to lock their daughters up, even if it's for their own protection. So after we read these stories, I always talked about the injustices done to the princesses. The kids would listen to me solemnly, agree that it is wrong to lock someone up in a tower, and ask me to read the story again.

Another thing that hasn't changed is that kids are still dragged into tough situations when things go wrong in their parents' lives. One afternoon, we were talking about how hard it is to leave places you love. A 5-year-old girl named Camille, who had moved to Baltimore from Seattle when her parents split up, very seriously said, ''Sometimes you have a favorite tree in your yard that you really like a lot, and then you have to leave it . . .'' but she couldn't finish because she was crying.

One of the children I spent time with was a precocious first-grader named Irina. I was often struck by how adult she could be, yet also how unmistakably still a child. Irina and I spent hours and hours reading books. She's the kind of kid who becomes thoroughly immersed in stories. I'm sure that when her mother read ''Charlotte's Web'' to her, Irina believed that she, herself, was Fern. (In fact, Irina has a guinea pig named Wilbur.)

In her 6 years, Irina has had her share of tough things to deal with, like her parents' divorce and the sale of a house that she had lived in for half her life. To make matters worse, her best friend, Stephanie, moved far away with her family in July. Irina was also a little bit worried about whether she was going to like her first-grade teacher. I think that one of the reasons Irina liked reading so much was the escape.

At the end of the summer, we read a book called ''The Three Wishes,'' by Margot Zemach, about a poor peasant couple who, when they save a pixie's life, are given three wishes. While trying to decide what their wishes are to be, they begin to quarrel. The husband, disgusted, unwittingly says that at the moment he just wishes they had some sausages for dinner. Sausages appear, and wish number one is gone. His wife, enraged, says she wishes that the sausages were stuck to the end of his nose. Hence the disappearance of wish number two. Try as they might, they cannot get the sausages off his nose, and they have to use up wish number three for that.

Irina was intrigued by the story. I asked what she would wish for if she were given three wishes. She asked me to tell what I would wish for first. So I thought, and trying not to be too selfish, I said that first, I wanted to find a job that I really liked going to every day; second, I hoped that someday I would earn enough money to buy a house that I liked, and third, I hoped that no harm would come to my loved ones.

Then it was Irina's turn. Her eyes sparkled as she told me her wishes. ''First, I wish my parents would get back together. Second, I wish that Stephanie would come back. And third, I wish that my bears would come alive.''

For a moment, she lived the fantasy of her wishes. More than anything, I wanted to be able to make them come true. Then her face changed. The sparkle turned to disappointment.

I said to her ''It's hard, isn't it, when you want things so badly, and you think about them so hard, that you almost believe they've come true.'' There were tears in her eyes as she agreed with me.

My summer with the kids filled me with nostalgia for a time when my wishes were simple ones, and when I believed that I could make them come true if I wished hard enough. It also was a reminder that it's the simplest, least selfish of wishes that are sometimes the hardest to make come true, and the most deserving.

Pamela Tanton writes from Baltimore.

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