Stories you identify with as a child are special and have a way of feeling as though they were written just for you.
My handful includes the first few books in the Redwall series and “The Hobbit.” But a picture book called “The Castle Builder” by Dennis Nolan topped the stack. It’s a story about a boy building a sandcastle who falls into a rich daydream where his beach creation is real, a fortress he must defend against invading barbarians and a dragon.
These stories, especially “The Castle Builder,” transported me. They made the imaginative, metaphorical prism I viewed the world through feel a little more normal.
There are other stories, though; tales that spoke to me on one level as a child that – somehow – grew and evolved with me and now affect me for different reasons decades later.
Those types of stories feel rare, almost unicorn-grade.
“Calvin & Hobbes” collected editions are among this rare echelon. They might be the ruler of this story category.
In case you’re among the uninitiated ranks, “Calvin & Hobbes” was a newspaper comic strip by Bill Watterson that ran for 10 years. It’s about a 6-year-old boy whose best friend is a stuffed tiger, one he has conversations with and who looks quite different through his eyes during those moments. It’s up to the reader if Hobbes is pulling a Toy Story of sorts (freezing so as not to get caught mid-anthropomorphic stride) or if it’s all in Calvin’s (very) imaginative head.
Some comics are one-offs, shorter stories told in a few scant panels. Others last for multiple strips, sometimes spanning several pages.
In one such story, Calvin and his parents attend a wedding, and Calvin leaves Hobbes at home by mistake. They return to find their house burglarized, the window smashed. Calvin scrambles, tearing through the house with panicked tears streaming from his face, screaming for Hobbes. He scampers from room to room, calling for his friend.
His mom makes the find.
“Hobbes, I’m so glad to see you! You’re safe and sound! (sniff) And now I am, too!”
“It looks like we’re a whole family again,” Mom says.
“Such as it is, yes,” Calvin’s Dad concurs.
When I was 6 – Calvin’s age – I lost my stuffed bear, Buddy. Like Hobbes, I left him in the sheets…in a Sausalito, California hotel room where my family stayed during my uncle’s wedding. (I was the ring bearer.)
We returned from the wedding rehearsal to find a clean room and a MIA stuffed animal. I went to sleep alone, and my mom went down into a dark basement in her wedding rehearsal dress and started pulling dirty sheets out of a cluster of laundry carts. Buddy came rolling out to the floor at the sixth or seventh cart. My mom picked him up and cried, a two-hour (or so) search concluded.
We were a whole family again. Such as it was.
When I first read the Calvin & Hobbes story where Hobbes went missing, it felt like a memory, in a way.
Thirty-four years later, Buddy belongs to my 9-year-old daughter now. He’s old and loved, safe and sound because my mom found him and brought him home.
When I was 38, I temporarily lost my youngest daughter in a crowd (4 at the time.) It was a scant moment, less than a minute; it felt like a week. I found her with a grownup she’d sought out for help after we’d gotten briefly separated at the Pear Blossom Mayor’s Cup.
The relief I felt while holding and calming her down made me physically tired. It felt like slamming on the brakes of a rocket-powered car immediately after breaking the sound barrier.
The same Calvin & Hobbes story involving a burglary and a missing loved one still resides in my consciousness after that. But now the main thrust – the spotlight – is on Calvin’s dad.
“Are you still awake too?” Calvin’s mom asks her overly alert husband, ears pricking up at the slightest sound in the darkness, his illusion of security – literally – shattered.
“Mm-hmm. I was thinking,” Calvin’s Dad responds. “It’s funny…when I was a kid, I thought grownups never worried about anything. I trusted my parents to take care of everything, and it never occurred to me that they might not know how. I figured that once you grew up, you automatically knew what to do in any given scenario. I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”
As a child, I empathized with Calvin’s relief, with a seemingly frightening moment that infallible, indestructible parents solved. As an adult, Calvin’s dad’s musings on growing up and the epiphany that you must constantly improvise that infallible, indestructible persona rang the truest.
Same story, different takeaways.
I’m grateful for the perspective these types of stories bring, for fiction and metaphor that grow and evolve alongside you.