I remember the first book ever read to me: “Kettle Head, An Awful Warning to Bad Babas,” by Helen Bannerman. My elder sister brought it home from the school library in our little Illinois town. It told what happens when you play with fire. One minute, an adorable child is poking the fire, and in the next, her head is in flames. The horrified servants drew a face on a kettle and placed it where her head had been. The illustrations were scary, a little girl with a saucepan for a head – or worse, the same child walking around with nothing above her shoulders. Strangely enough, her preoccupied parents never noticed that their daughter was missing such an important part of her anatomy. The book graced our house weekly, courtesy of you- know-who.
My sister’s second favorite oral reading was “The Monkey’s Paw,” a short story by W.W. Jacobs. In the tale, the narrator’s friend was eager to pass along a strange legend he’d heard visiting India, about the amazing power of a paw severed from a monkey. The action begins with three knocks at the door as the visitor is welcomed. The monkey’s paw, the man said, held the power to make three wishes come true, and, as if confirming the wish, rumor had it, the paw would twitch. The visitor exited, leaving the paw on the mantle with a stern warning to not to believe legends, but to be wary, just in case there was truth in it.
In our sitting room, illuminated only by the flickering flame of the heater, we sprawled on the floor, and my sister read the story, adding her own embellishments. When, the visitor arrives, another sister rapped three times on the coffee table behind her. When the paw is mentioned, she shook a soggy catnip mouse. We would scream, huddle together, and move farther away from the door. For ages, when tree branches scraped against a window, I would recall a neighbor being lifted into a hearse, black wreaths on doors denoting recent deaths, or watching my daddy shoot a dog riddled with mange. It was a monkey’s paw, though, that made me wary of the power of wishes.
My sister thought a class she was required to take called home economics was terrible. It taught girls how to keep a tidy and smoothly running home. The teacher, Miss Cruickshank, or as my sister and her friends called her, (the old) “Bag,” threw in lessons on manners, deportment and the value of dazzling laundry.
Doing the supper dishes had always been my sister’s and my duty, but intending to outdo the old Bag, my sister invented for me, what she called a “running board.” It consisted of eight kitchen chairs pulled close enough to put the leafs of both the kitchen and dining room tables between them. I was the dish dryer, and, on cue, I dashed the length of the kitchen on the rattling boards, arms full of warm dishes. The board ensured that I could reach the highest cabinets and quickly free us from servitude until the next night.
Political correctness, helicopter parenting, and the passage of time make such antics as I grew up with obsolete, if not, downright strange by today’s standards. Our days began with sausage gravy, hot griddle cakes and school. At the end of the day, lying on the outdoorsy-smelling throw rugs that cushioned the worn linoleum floor, the boxy, brown heat stove our nucleus, we did homework, played Jacks, Tiddly Winks and Pick Up Stix. Books, scissors, crayons and pencils, near at hand, we read, illustrated and sometimes argued over actual and imaginary tales.
India, home of Little Degchie Head and the place where a man found a magic monkey’s paw, was as far away from our small town as Mars. Although my mother sang along with the radio, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” she hadn’t a clue it was from a live musical, “Finian’s Rainbow,” playing on Broadway in New York City.
My sister, with money from an after-school job as a counter girl at Goren’s Café on busy Route 66, bought me a subscription to one of the only kids’ magazines at the time, Playmate For Children. I learned to help our feathered friends by making bird feeders out of bacon grease, breadcrumbs and oatmeal boxes, woven coasters for daddy’s coffee cup, and devised cats and dogs from circles and other simple shapes.
The nurture/nature question continues today. Who we become is a mixture of both our heredity and environment, but when people wonder at my quirky and sometimes off-beat sense of humor, I know exactly how I got it. I can thank a bad child named Kettle Head, a pawless monkey, secondhand lessons from a home economics teacher and my personal tutor, my sister. Stories told and retold, piles of books, a stream of drawing, coloring and play-acting gave expression to our innate creativity. All without TV or personal telephones. The occasional radio program or a Saturday matinee, unescorted, at the movie theater in town gave us a window to the world. Honestly, I’m no worse for it – and, you can bet, I’m always careful around fire.