When my niece was 3, she asked her mother a question: Do clouds sleep?
A reasonable question, I thought, since clouds always have seemed somewhat human to me. They puff up into masses of shadow-shifting grays when they’re angry, and they shout at, and even shock you when they think you aren’t paying attention. They blink and they cry in soft mists when they are waxing nostalgic and in torrents when they are scorched to their emotional core.
But on silky summer days, they dress up in their finest whites, skating across the sky with the elegance of an Olympic ice dancer.
All this, from water vapor and air.
At the time my namesake posed her question, I was the mother of a babbling baby. I couldn’t imagine one day she would have a mind so curious as to wonder if clouds might require an afternoon nap, like baby brothers and moms and dads upon occasion. But being a cloud questioner myself from way back, I let hers noodle in my brain for awhile.
That summer we lived on North Decatur Road in Atlanta, a busy thoroughfare. Author Margaret Mitchell once wrote that it was home to Scarlett O’Hara’s lumber mill. During the day while my husband worked, I moved the baby from room to room in her bucket in the sultry heat as I carried out the work of a stay-at-home mother. And when my daughter napped, I typed ideas apart from her on an old Olivetti my parents had given me in college.
In the evenings, I sat in a classroom on the Emory campus with other fledgling writers like myself, taking yet another creative writing course. I started a novel that, looking back, was actually a long and poorly written personal essay about Sunday afternoons with my grandfather. And then, the quiet thoughts of my niece captured my brain, and I attempted to answer her question.
A few days later, I headed to the dime store and bought a packet of rainbow colored construction paper, a pair of good scissors and set to work. Do clouds sleep? Well, it turns out, they can sleep in all kinds of places. With my trusty scissors, I carved out a story for her (and my daughter and other niece and nephews) to show them where.
Clouds doze by the moon’s nose, don’t you know? And between a jogging giant’s knees.
The moon I created out of yellow construction paper looked a lot like my father, a cloud tickling his needle nose. At more than 6 feet tall, my dad was a giant in his tiny grandchildren’s eyes, and the knees that ended up on my crudely crafted page looked just like his. I cut and glued and glued some more, borrowing cotton balls from our medicine cabinet for my three-dimensional clouds. I made a cover with cardboard and Contact paper, fastening the binding with Duck Tape.
It was a tiny story, only a few pages long, but the kids liked it. I read it to my own children when they were small, hoping to spark some corner of their imaginations, to encourage their sense of wonder beyond what’s expected in every ordinary day.
Over the years I’ve taken out my little poem and let it swirl around my head like a cumulus. In the years since I wrote the first lines, its shape has shifted just like clouds do, and the clouds now find themselves in all sorts of places. But the moon’s nose and the giant’s knees remain, and in my mind, they will always be my father’s.
I’ve sent the manuscript off to publishers and have been met with silence, but I keep noodling.
When my nieces had their first children a few years ago, I pulled the cloud book out again and headed to the craft store. I bought an X-Acto knife and some pinking shears, and large packs of cardboard in aquas and pinks, grays and greens and purples. I printed the words to the book on stiff white paper, with an eye toward my new creation. And I started to cut.
It might have helped if I had taken a single art class in college. I just couldn’t train my hands to create what my mind imagined.
Yet, the clouds still draw me.
It’s been Rountree Beach Week this week, which as it happens, has provided a thousand chances for watching clouds take on the temperament of the new baby in our midst. Like a cloud, my grandson Henry coos and he thunders, he slips silently in and out of sleep and shape-shifts from smiles to tears in seconds, his arms and legs stretching out toward us, talking. With him in my lap, we watch the afternoon storm clouds swirl around us, shifting, shouting, crying.
I have a new reader now. Soon he’ll be wondering if clouds sleep, when they wander, over treetops, streets and yonder, searching for a place to stop and rest their weary eyes.
It just so happens that I know just the right pillow, a pillow, soft as clouds.