The Power of Three

One Saturday morning over McDonald’s coffee and breakfast sandwiches at their apartment, I tried to explain our new project,, to my father and his girlfriend.  Our first “series,” I said, had to do with how choosing a book could make one safer, even if only in one’s mind and heart.  I told them about the wonderful blog by John Lavin, a high-school English teacher in Kensington. Then it occurred to me to ask my dad.  This is the story that followed.


When I asked my father whether he thought of any book as one that made him safer as a child, he said: “The Three Little Pigs”.

 But safe, I asked him, how did it it keep you safe, emotionally, spiritually, psychically?

 “Well, there were three different endings,” he said.

 We tried to remember them. Bits of endings came to us:  the pigs safe in the house, and the wolf, frustrated, giving up, leaving them alone; that was one.  The wolf in a pot, boiling, having jumped down the chimney, aka chimbley; that was two.  What was the third?  We remembered earlier bits, especially where the third pig outsmarted the wolf by going to an apple orchard early and coming back before the wolf appeared. But what was the third ending?  The three endings mattered to my dad.  They made a symmetrical little mirror of the three pigs themselves. Three pigs, three endings.


But how did that make him safer?

Meanwhile, Dad’s girlfriend started in on her story, Cinderella, and how the girl on the outs gets the prince. For a minute we talked about how many cultures have Cinderella stories, and how our daughters loved the Native American version about the rough-faced girl and the invisible great one in a white leather tepee. And, say, look, that story had two bad sisters and one good one.

 There it was again, two plus one.

“Three,” he said, as if in answer.   

 I was missing the point, which was about form as much as content.  The rule, or the power, of three is something I sometimes talk about in writing classes.  Two points make a line; three make a trend or a pattern, the simplest there is.  Three makes a triangle.  It’s complete.  

 “I always thought three was like the father mother and child,” he said.

 Maybe three was his father and mother and him, perfect, back before WWII, when their little triad could hope for all kinds of potential endings other than breakup and divorce, and things said that could not be taken back. Three was like the Holy Trinity, an elegant power, now and forever.

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It didn’t matter what that other ending was.  The wolf was gone or boiled up; the pigs were safe, ha-ha-ha, and he was a little boy again in the memory of it.  Three felt safe.

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