I’ve been waiting for Elizabeth Stickney and Gary D. Schmidt’s Almost Time for quite awhile. Seems appropriate — it’s a book about waiting, after all. I read very early drafts of it years ago, so long ago that I can hardly recall details — only that it’s about the making of maple syrup. What I discovered upon reading it in published form is that in addition to being about the making of maple syrup, this book is also about the solace found in waiting and working together.
The book opens with Ethan sitting at the kitchen table looking somewhat disappointed in a stack of pancakes that his father has placed before him. There is applesauce on top. Not maple syrup. Which means, Ethan knows, that the syrup has run out and it is almost time for sugaring again.
Almost Time is a nebulous time — especially for a child. It seems like it is right around the corner, yet it’s somehow always out of reach. The waiting is extra hard when you don’t know how long it will last. And when you’re waiting for something sweet like maple syrup, you can practically taste it…and yet you also wonder if you’ve forgotten what it tastes like.
I recently read this book to some kids new to maple syrup. They’re new to our country and our pancake and waffle ways. They’ve now had maple syrup, but they had no idea it came from trees.
“Which trees?!” they asked, incredulous. “Maple trees,” I said. “Like the big one in my backyard.”
“That huge one by your garden?” they asked.
We tap that tree some springs. Conditions have to be right — the temperature fluctuations need to go below freezing at night and above freezing during the day before the sap starts running and we can harvest it. But the years in which the conditions are right are nearly overwhelming in terms of the amount of sugary sap there is to process. We are well stocked with maple syrup at our house.
Not so at Ethan’s house at the end of the winter, which is when this book opens. As the pages turn, we watch the days grow longer and the temperatures grow warmer…but things change slowly. So slowly. Ethan eats his cornbread the next Sunday with no syrup, and his oatmeal with raisins and walnuts (but no syrup) the next, and eggs and toast the next — no syrup in sight.
The walnuts in the oatmeal give Ethan something else to wait for. He bites down on a walnut and discovers his tooth is loose. His father inspects the tooth and declares it will fall out before long.
“How long?” asked Ethan.
“About as long as it takes the sap to start running,” Dad said.
The kids I read this book to know all about loose teeth. We had to take a slight intermission in our reading so I could hear the stories about their lost teeth. And how long they had to wait for those wiggly teeth to come out. These are kids who know viscerally what it is to wait. They are intimately familiar with Almost Time, which sometimes stretches interminably long, so long that you wonder if the waited for thing will actually occur.
Kids everywhere are doing the hard kind of waiting these days — the kind where there’s not a definitive end in sight. We’d like to say its Almost Time to see grandparents, friends, and teachers again. We’d love to tell them it’s Almost Time to stop and play at the park again, to go to school again, to leave the house again. But not yet for most of us.
Not Yet Time and Almost Time stand side-by-side. We are still in Not Yet Time on so many of the things we are yearning to return to.
Ethan eventually loses his tooth, and the sap finally runs. Ethan and his father are busy boiling the sticky stuff down to maple syrup for Ethan’s breakfast pleasure. The boiling process takes a long time — they’re back to waiting — but they do it together, which makes it sweeter.
This is what I hope and wish and pray for families with little ones in this extraordinary time in which we are living. That the waiting to get back to all the very important things like extended family, school, friends, activities, etc., is somehow made sweeter because we’re doing it together. It’s hard work, all this waiting and social distancing and staying home and staying safe. Important work, too. The message of Almost Time is that it’s good to work and wait together — a timely theme for our life just now.