When I learned that Paula Sharaga, 69, the longtime children’s librarian in our community, was the cyclist killed in a Fenway-area accident last week, my own life flashed before my eyes.
There I was, a lonely new mother with a floppy infant in my arms, at one of Paula’s sing-alongs in the Coolidge Corner library basement. And there I was again, now accompanied by a toddler, who laughed in delight at the filmy scarves Paula would produce from her bag of playthings.
I have pictures of my daughter lunging at Mrs. Perky Bird, the puppet Paula brought out during her music and rhythm classes for children. I even learned the words to “Mrs. Perky Bird,” the song, after I discovered how much my daughter loved it.
Paula was one of the first people my daughter could identify outside of our family. In her toddler lisp, with the oddly guttural emphasis that signified importance, she would spot Paula at the library desk and pronounce “Paula! Paula sing.”
Paula taught me to be a mother. Not how to nurse or change diapers, but how to play and sing and make noises that seemed like nonsense to me, but were an endless delight to my child. She taught me of the powers of sound and color, and the magic wrought by repetitive rhythm and movement. Paula did it weekly and she did it at no cost to parents; her own devotion subsidized by Brookline’s public library system.
[Parenting] is about setting aside ego and ideals and meeting a toddler exactly where they are, with bright colors and joyous sounds.
In the days since I learned of her sudden, ugly death, I wonder: Who will teach everyone else how to parent now that she’s gone?
And: Did I tell her what she’d done? Did any of us? Or did we let our children grow up and evolve beyond her weekly sessions, without ever pausing to consider and mourn what we’d left behind?
When I recall Paula’s Tuesday morning sing-alongs, the first words that come to mind are drab and damp. The basement meeting room in the library was covered in sturdy gray carpet that retained the rain and slush from hundreds of shoe soles week to week. The room held a hint of mold, even in the height of summer.
I’d like to say Paula was a ray of sunshine, but that’s not entirely true. On first glance Paula was small, wiry and harried, her iron-gray bob and thick black brows a walking admonishment: We’ve got work to do here. Let’s make sure those double-wide strollers don’t block the fire exit and everyone please take one cushion and form a circle. Remember, don’t block the fire exit. What did I say about the fire exit?
But once the parents and caregivers had been set to rights, it was all about the children. The drab and damp disappeared for 45 minutes of song and discovery. We played with bells, danced with scarves, and learned to sign. She had limitless patience for a child’s impulse to get up and dance, or shake a wristband of tiny bells in the middle of a quiet song.
Paula taught me to be a mother.
When I was a new mother, I had plenty of people telling me what to feed my baby and when; how often she should sleep and stay awake; whether I should go back to work or stay at home. But only Paula told me how to play with her, how to engage in a way that I didn’t totally understand but was exactly right for my daughter’s developing senses.
The day after her death, when I began to think about the role Paula had played in our life, I searched my email for “Perky Bird,” seeking a photo Paula had taken of my daughter with the puppet. I ended up with the photo and more: messages from my mother and my husband and others about how they couldn't get “Mrs. Perky Bird” out of their heads, how the song was so repetitive and ridiculous they couldn’t help but memorize it and sing it over and over. Just as a toddler might.
The baby I carried anxiously into those sing-alongs at the library is now in third grade. Still, when we go to the Coolidge Corner library she looks for Paula. She does not remember “Mrs. Perky Bird,” that drab basement or her mother’s anxiety, but she knows Paula is woven in the fabric that makes her who she is.
I told Paula how much my daughter loved her. But I never explained what she’d taught me: that parenting is so much more than making sure a child is fed and rested and sustained. It is about setting aside ego and ideals and meeting a toddler exactly where they are, with bright colors and joyous sounds.