My eldest was three months old when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. It was my first time wanting to binge-read since this little person came into my life, wanting all my attention, and I wasn’t sure how to make it work. I somehow figured out how to balance a 784-page book open in front of me while nursing. I cuddled the baby while allowing myself, for the first time in what then seemed like forever but was really only a few months and now looks like nothing to me, to get sucked into a fictional reality again. By page 180 I was immersed enough to be moved to tears. But ironically, I probably wouldn’t have been half so moved if I hadn’t had that tiny little attention-suck lying beside me.
On page 180, Harry finds a letter his mother had written to Sirius sometime in the three months between Harry’s first birthday at the end of July and her death at the end of October. She described baby Harry’s elation with the toy broom Sirius had sent him, in a breezy, off-hand chatter—a simple thank-you note to a friend with a little chit-chat thrown in. It had probably seemed like a little thing to Lily when she wrote it or to Sirius when he read it, but now, knowing the roller-coaster Harry’s life would take starting just a few months later, it was a shining, warm glimpse of life in a loving young family that Harry had never known he’d had. He couldn’t remember anything before life with his abusive aunt and uncle, beyond a vague image of flying motorcycles and flashing green lights. But he’d learned to ride a broom ten years before he took so naturally to one when he started at Hogwarts.
Much is made of the moment Lily sacrificed her life to save Harry, therefore sealing him with a protective charm of her love. But she, and James, had been filling Harry with love for fifteen months, and fifteen months is a long time in the life of a baby.
It’s easy for people who aren’t around babies to think of them as blank slates, crying-eating-pooping-sleeping machines. I’ve had two babies, but that was about a decade ago, and even though I still call them my babies on a regular basis, their actual babyness seems a distant memory. This week I was assigned my first Baby Storytime at the library, and I panicked: babies? What do I do with babies? How can I go in there and tell other adults how to talk and sing and play with their babies?
Then I realized that that was the key: acknowledging that nobody knew those babies the way their grownups knew those babies. And then I really remembered my babies, how from birth—from before birth, even—it was clear they weren’t blank slates, but had distinct personalities and genuine emotions. Sure, they might not have object permanence, and they probably wouldn’t remember any of this in a few years, but they were people, and we had a relationship.
My not-so-much-babies-anymore and I are reading Deathly Hallows together now. Lots of characters die in this one—last night we hit the end of the “Battle of Hogwarts” chapter and my personal most-painful Harry Potter casualty*—but the only part that made me choke up and pause my reading aloud was still page 180. The glimpse of the happy childhood that might have been—the happy childhood that was for fifteen months that he couldn’t remember! Lily and James Potter had given him a loving home once, but did it even matter if he couldn’t even remember it?
Yes. Yes it mattered. The love in his mother’s moment of sacrifice may have stopped Voldemort from killing him, but the love she had given him steadily for those first fifteen months had sustained him, deep inside, through ten years of abuse and bullying, and seven more years of death-defying adventures. That early baby-bonding time laid the groundwork for a future hero.
It’s never not going to make me teary.
*”He died laughing, though!” I kept saying to my kids in case they didn’t appreciate the pain as much as me.