A Tribute to Maurice Sendak, by Kim Tomsic
I hope Maurice Sendak, author of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, saw his angel today.
Maurice Sendak was often sick as a child. His illness was serious enough that death loomed as a real possibility—a subject his parents were candid about. They were so outspoken about death’s possibility that Maurice’s father often encouraged him to play a game called spot the angel. The game went such that when Maurice’s illness left him stuck in bed, his father challenged him to stare out the window without blinking. He told his son that if he could do this, he might see an angel, and if he saw an angel it meant he was a very lucky boy. Maurice tried and tried to see the angel, but his burning eyes eventually gave in to blinking, and his father would say, “You just missed it.”
One day, however Maurice was successful and resisted the need to blink. Maurice claimed an angel revealed itself; it passed his window slowly, allowing him to marvel at the beauty and details of the body and wings. When the apparition departed, Maurice screamed for his father, and upon hearing the details about the angel, his father said, “Today, you are a very lucky boy.” Maurice didn’t die as a child, but grew up to write and illustrate great works such as WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, and OUTSIDE OVER THERE. Sendak credits his childhood illnesses as the source of inspiration on becoming an artist. He died today, May 8, 2012, at the age of eighty-three.
Maurice Sendak had a unique perspective on the world. While growing up, he thought adults were dreadful, and that adulthood happened when a child had their back turned. Paradoxically he was also anti-Peter Pan, meaning he did not want to remain a child forever. To him, being a child was a powerless position of no pocket change, few choices, and too many rules. Some of the rules in Maurice Sendak’s life included sitting with his bounty of Jewish relatives for Sunday dinners. He said that his mother was a slow cook, which left him stuck with the relative clan for hours on end. Sendak said that on most Sundays, he passed the time by studying all the “groteseque” details of his aunts and uncles…hair twirling out of nostrils, moles growing on cheeks, bloodshot eyes, etc. And it was this very band of Jewish relatives that served as his inspiration for the illustration of the monsters in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.
Maurice Sendak grew up as an orthodox Jew, but he lived his life as a secular Jew. He did enjoy certain Jewish traditions. One tradition he enjoyed included the twenty-four hour candle lit upon a loved one’s death. I hope you lit your candle. In life, Sendak asserted that his gods were Dickenson, Melville, Mozart, Shakespeare, and Keats, but I hope when he passed, he saw his angel again.