Bygone days tumble from pages of Papa Small storybook

Whenever I get to the children's room in the library, I find the books that really attract me are the ones I remember from my own childhood. Of course, there are beautiful new books for children, brighter and bolder than the ones I had. Still, when I want to curl up in a chair and feel really good about being a mother, there's nothing like the books from the '40s that my parents read to me. The other day I was delighted to stumble on those little books by Lois Lenski about the Small people, a race of diminutive professionals who perform their daily tasks with charming seriousness. There was Policeman Small, in soft line drawing with the face of a cherub, directing traffic, helping children cross the street. Here came Fireman Small, racing to save the people in the burning house, washing his engine carefully at night. I came home happily bearing ``Papa Small,'' promising our 21/2-year-old a


And yet, how different things look, now that I am a parent. As I turned the pages I was both flooded with memory and gripped by surprise. What an astonishingly safe and simple world Lenski presents! In the morning Papa Small shaves. The small Smalls watch. They wave goodbye as he goes to work. Mama Small sweeps the floor. Children help. Papa Small comes home, and they all have dinner. Everything tastes good. Sometimes Papa Small helps around the house, in a masculine sort of way: He hangs a picture, fix es the sink. On Sunday afternoon he takes the family for a drive. ``The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing.'' Wonderful.

I am suddenly lifted into the historical context of my childhood, with its postwar conservatism. For the author of this old-fashioned little book, and for her audience of parents, the safety of suburbs and well-defined sex roles must have been perfectly satisfying. I seem to see the whole 1950s rise up out of these pages, with both their sexism and their optimism.

How strange to be reading this book from the perspective of the '80s. Here we are in our sophisticated, liberated double-income world. Here we are, reading daily about pressures on the family, about burned-out supermoms, about teen-age mothers, teen-age suicides, about child abuse, and the divorce rate that's ever spiraling upward. Papa Small indeed.

Then I look at the little girl in my lap, who is consuming the Small world without distance or criticism. Oh yes, in her eyes, we are the Small family. By some instinct for conservatism, we have even tried to make ourselves like the Small family -- safe, warm, eternal. If Mommy goes to work three days a week, we discuss this as a sort of hobby of hers, and a chance for Kate to play with her friends. We watch Daddy shave in the morning and wave goodbye at the door. Daddy fixes the sink, Momm y sweeps the kitchen floor.

Groomed though we are by the feminist '70s and '80s, as parents we revert to what we most deeply know. So here we are -- for a short spell -- making this simple, safe Lois Lenski world come true for our child. It won't last, of course. But it seems a harmless illusion as long as we can hold it.

Parenting is a conservative activity. We reach backward to what worked for us when we were children. The pang of parenthood is in knowing that we cannot make the flowers bloom, or the birds sing. We cannot make a safe world, or one in which people know exactly what is expected of them. We do what we can.

So Kate and I put the dinner in the oven and wait for the sounds of Daddy coming home. And I sit here in this rocking chair reading ``Papa Small'' as if the whole world were a cradle of love like ours. She's only 21/2. Shall we read ``Papa Small'' again?

Illustrations reprinted with permission from the book ``More Mr. Small,'' renewed copyright 1962. Published by David McKay Company.

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