When I was very small, my family had a big blue book.
I don’t remember the name of the book, but I know that it was a treasury, a collection, a taste of many famous children’s stories.
We used to read it at bedtime; I remember my father reading to me from the big blue book. I remember thumbing through the pages myself, even though I was barely old enough to read.
The big blue book had some poems that I loved, well before I could really understand them. I remember reading “The Road Not Taken” and “The Elephant’s Child”. Both of them touched me, in different ways, although I didn’t really understand either one. I only knew that I loved the sound of the words, and that hearing them read out loud struck a deep chord in me, ringing out a challenge that I couldn’t begin to understand.
And I remember that there were parts of the big blue book that simply scared me. There was a two page poem called “The Brownies” that gave me the creeps, big time. I remember a picture of children sledding. I don’t remember why this seemed so scary to me, but it did. I remember that the Brownies were supposed to be magical, like fairies, but that they seemed somehow awkward, and stressed. They had strangely pointed shoes on, and they looked anxious and angry and somehow threatening.
But there was something about the language of those pages, the words of the poem, that drew me in every time I opened the book. I read them over and over; it was the first time that I recognized that the sound of words could be more powerful than the meaning of those words.
I loved that big blue book.
I loved “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright” and I loved the story of “Peter Pan”. That book enthralled me.
But there was one story in the big blue book that always made me sad. It was a story that would creep into my mind, late at night, so very long ago.
It was the story of “The Little Match Girl”. I clearly remember the first time that I heard the story, although I can’t remember now whether it was my mother or grandmother who was reading the text, or whether I was puzzling it out on my own. I don’t know. What I do remember, though, is that as the story unfolded, my emotions grew and shifted. I remember the moment when I realized what it was that was happening to the little girl.
If you do not know the story, here is the summary. The story is told through the eyes of a little girl, out on the streets of London on a bitter cold night. We meet the girl, and we read about her thoughts as she decides to light one of the matches that she is selling on the street. The matches are her livelihood; they are all that is keeping her alive. Still, she strikes one match when she is bitterly cold and afraid of the dark. In the golden glow of the lit match, the little girl glimpses a family, happy and warm and filled with love. They are encircled by the light of her match flame, but when it goes out, the vision goes too.
She lights another match, to see the beautiful image of warmth and safety again. The images flares, and ignites her hope, and then it fades. She lights two more to see the beauty again. Again it fades.
She lights three matches now, and the family in the golden image smiles, and embraces and celebrates together. And then it fades.
Eventually, the matches are all burned out, and we realize that the little girl has died, cold and alone and dreaming of a better life. There are no more matches. Her hope is gone.
I remember that story.
I remember it tonight, as I read that nearly 7,000 people in the city of Boston are living on the street tonight. I remember that story as I wonder how many of those people are children. I wonder how many of them will fall asleep tonight, hungry and cold and squeezing their eyes shut so that they can see the beautiful images that live inside them.
I will fall asleep tonight, wondering about The Little Match Girl. Wondering how many children just like her are fighting to stay alive on the streets of our city on this bitter cold night.