I’m just going to cut to the chase: writing about collaborating with my son has been tough. Forget the opening line grabber or clever title. Every time I’ve sat down and said, “Today’s the day,” I’m thrown back to third grade, staring at a blank sheet of paper the teacher has placed on my desk. “Describe the light switch,” she said, informing the class we were embarking upon “Creative Writing.” I tripped and fell off the plank. What she collected from my wooden desk was the Zen of Creative Writing — a void, except for two words. On. Off.
Fathers have been bequeathing family businesses to sons since the dawn of time. So, why the blank? Why the fits and starts? One, you never read about Eve proposing Pâtisserie de la Pomme, a Garden Variety start-up, to her sons; two, and this is the Biggie, I fear sound sentimental. Unless you’re Bonnie and your son, Clyde, Jr., the topic, Mother and Son, smacks of cliché, a writer’s nightmare.
But, after much angst, I’m risking sentiment, the clattering of clichés, and am determined to finish writing about how collaborating with my son came to be.
When I had launched MarMooWorks and its first product, Sam wasn’t in town. He liked the name, the tagline Where Reading Takes Flight, and the illustrator of the first book, whom he knew. Such was the extent of our conversations. Well, not quite . . .
Once, I cracked joke: starting a new business called SAMM. Get it? Son and Mom Movies. He did not find it the least bit amusing. Nor was he interested in illustrating the third book, A Hullabaloo of Hippos: A Lollapalooza of Language from A to Z. His No, I can’t draw resonated with: Don’t ask again. So, what changed, besides the passing of time, which Time has the habit of doing?
Happenstance. Pure and simple . . . and Compassion.
While I was in the throes of laying out A Hullabaloo of Hippos, Sam had returned home temporarily to work on a film. No sooner had he crossed the threshold than my illustrator vanished. Poof! — just like that: “And then he was gone with the tip of his hat.” What Sam witnessed no child should ever see: a mother “gnashing her terrible teeth and roaring her terrible roar.” Then again, it may have been this vision that caused him to drop the No! and say, “Mom, I’ll do it. I’ll illustrate the book.”
Although we missed the Holiday deadline, we created a book filled with spirit — a spirit surpassing anything I had imagined. Each character exudes whimsy and reveals another storyline. “Dillo,” like Anansi-the-Spider, orchestrates a hullabaloo of a celebration where hippos dance with zinging zapataedos and lollygagging lemurs arrive on the wrong page.
Did Sam and I talk collaboration during A Hullabaloo? No. Our conversations focused on finishing a book that had taken me three years to write. The book was laid out; all he had to do was “draw the pictures.” Did we always see eye-to-eye? No. Frustration and stress strained our voices, making it hard to converse and harder, still, to listen. Yet, when our throats constricted enough, we managed to pause, take a few slow breaths, and begin again.
After Sam had zipped the Hippos to the bookbindery, he returned to New Orleans where he met a long time family friend, Davy Sturtevant. Together, they produced the audio. While the audio wasn’t a verbal, “Hey, Mom, I’ve been thinking . . “; it gave me hope: some day, Sam might be game for another book.
Once again, Time passed. While finishing Goin’ Explorin’, a new story idea struck and, soon, I was surrounded by beasts. I sent Sam an early and yet-to-be-finished draft of When the Camel Sneezed. After wiping dromedary goobers from his eyes, he picked up his pencil and began sketching. This time, I wasn’t handing him a finished story already laid-out; I was offering him a place in the story-making process. And, that, I believe, has transformed MarMooWorks, a relationship between Mother and Son, and what it means to take flight.
The Camel, literally and figuratively, has been a journey “through a zigzag path as long as a jaw about to snap.” It’s been a journey of stripping off layers of habits, taking greater risks, and learning how to communicate — to listen effectively. Sam and I have taken turns carrying each other’s pack when we thought we couldn’t climb another step. Last January, I panicked. The story, like the camel, had stumbled. The longer I sat at my desk, the more I saw that light switch. On. Off. I phoned Sam, frantic about holding him up and missing another Yuletide.
He asked me to read aloud the draft. “The ending’s there, Mom; it’s just in the wrong place.” Rather than argue about this being my story and how dare he play down the role of a favorite character, I listened. The next morning, I moved what might be the conclusion to the end, scaled back on one character’s prominence, and worked backwards.
A few months later, Sam’s fingers froze. Despite what people said about A Hullabaloo of Hippos, Sam doubted his ability and hated everything he sketched. This time, I picked up the pack: not as the Director of MarMooWorks, nor as the writer, but as his mother — the one who bequeathed him with that persnickety Perfectionist Gene “wailing like a wombat and stomping like an elephant.” We didn’t just talk “shop” and deadlines, we “bared our souls.” Part of working together effectively has been our willingness to open up — our wanting to know each other better.
Nearing the end of laying out the Camel, I asked Sam if he’d take on the role of Artistic Director. He said Yes without hesitation. MarMooWorks, in 2016, hasindeed taken flight — a mother and son promoting literacy that goes beyond words; a mother and son interactively reading, storytelling, and creating; a mother and son guiding each other in loving to learn that which seems beyond our capabilities; and a mother and son listening to the nuances of language when communicating becomes most difficult.