Household Tales

This fall ABC’s Once Upon a Time airs for a fourth season along with NBC’s fourth season of Grimm. The captivating power of fairy tales remains strong two hundred and two years after the publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of folktales commonly known in English as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The book’s German title Kinder- und Hausmärchen, translates to Children’s and Household Tales. I haven’t become a fan of these television shows yet, but I remain an avid fan of household tales.

Household tales are the stories passed down from generation to generation within a family. You might consider them microcosmic folktales. Household tales typically don’t have the broad appeal of folktales, but for their family of origin, these stories are powerful. As a family’s myths, household tales often explain the origins of a family practices.

I grew up in my family’s old farmhouse in Waverly, Pennsylvania built in 1876. Stately for a farmhouse, the two-story home had a formal front staircase and a parlor, but the backstairs were never used. I don’t think I knew the stairs even existed until I was in the third grade. I had always thought the first floor entrance was merely a closet. The door that covered the entrance stood behind my grandmother’s padded rocking chair in her office. Most of my Grandmother’s space was forbidden.

My parents, my t1876hree siblings, and I lived upstairs in my grandparents’ house. We always used the front stairs. The backstairs connected to our bathroom and to a storage room. The storage room was called Grandmother’s room. It had indeed been hers at some point, but she never used it during my lifetime. She slept downstairs and never came upstairs. She occasionally came into the hall and whistled to gain our attention. We would then come to her. She never came up to us.

At some point, I had tried to peek into my Grandmother’s room upstairs, but slammed the door shut when I was met with the haunting stare of a stuffed grouse that I can only imagine was positioned in the door to ward off unwanted visitors like myself.

The door off the bathroom to the backstairs was never referred to as the door to the backstairs; rather, it was the back hall. I was sent periodically to the back hall to fetch a jar of home-canned tomatoes, green beans, or sauerkraut. They were stored in a tall cabinet. Until I had grown tall enough to see over the cabinet and could begin to see there was a large dark space behind the cabinet in the back hall, I had never wondered what was there.

I can remember peering over the top of the cabinet for the first time and seeing the steep, dust-covered stairs. The bottom was lost in shadow, like the bottom of a well.

As I remember it, my siblings and I all shared the same story as to why the stairs were closed off. My great-grandmother, who I had never known, had fallen down the stairs. Considered then a hazard, they had been blocked off, remaining unused for decades.

When I told my father this tale when I was in my twenties, searching for a fuller version of the story of why the stairs had been blocked, he told me the story was bunk, but he didn’t have any other story to replace it.

My omnipresent grandmother reigned larger than life in our home, even though she was strikingly short. She watched us constantly, enforcing numerous rules, such as a rule against tree-climbing. When I asked my mother why my grandmother was so protective, she reminded me that my father’s sister had drowned when she was two-and-a-quarter. The household tale of my Aunt Margaret became the following poem:

Aunt Margaret

I touched the concrete
beneath the dirt, beneath
the yew above the stone
that marks the spot without
words.

I knew I was there.

I’ve held her baby shoes,
barely emptied by age.
I’ve seen a few of her dresses
ivoried in a bureau safe.

I’ve even felt the leather
of the fatal football helmet,
but I’ve never heard the story
told by anyone who was there.

My mother says the maid lost
track of Margaret as she played,
and later found her face
down in the lily pond below
the house. They think she

must have slipped, strapped
playfully in the safety
of my father’s leather helmet,
staring at some fish. She couldn’t

have floated like Ophelia,
angelic face up, surrounded by
free flowing hair and a white dress
billowing like a cloud.

The carp must have been confused
seeing the open face of a flower
under a padded head.

This fall before I get enchanted with a new season of television, I think I’ll entertain my children by retelling some more of my family’s household tales. I would enjoy sharing with them household tales from other families. Take time to share one of your family’s stories in a comment below.

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Words of the Witch

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Mrs. Male taught me eighth-grade science during her last year of teaching.  Her bulletin boards were covered with pictures of lighthouses and lobsters from Maine where she planned to retire.  She had taught all three of my older siblings.  Her husband, Father Male, was an Episcopalian priest, so every one called her Mother Male.  However, this tall, stocky woman with short hair, who almost always wore a lab coat, never struck me as maternal, but rather as a clever teacher who made learning fun. 

Oddly, I don’t remember any labs in Mother Male’s science class—we must have had some, but I do remember dancing around her classroom in a mamba line.  Alternating which hands we raised, we sang repeatedly the classification levels of the scientific kingdoms:  There’s phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Go! Phylum, class, order . . . .  Another day, we circled the room singing twice as fast the divisions of the Metric system:  deci, centi, milli, deci, centi, milli.  More than thirty years later, I sing these songs as I dance around my English students, hoping to convince them of the power of repetitive rhythm as a mnemonic device for remembering material for a test. 

When I introduce Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack to American literature students, I tell them of Mother Male and her book of adages.   A renaissance person like Franklin, Mrs. Male enjoyed collecting short proverbs or aphoristic statements that cleverly express a general truth in a sentence or two using simple words, grammatical parallelism, and word play.  I tell my students I learned the word adage from my science teacher. 

I tell another story of Mother Male to my students when I’m teaching rhyme.  I tell my students that rhyme makes poems memorable.  “I can only recite one of my own poems.  It’s one of my first.  I wrote it when I once got a detention,” I begin, “for talking.”  When this makes them laugh, I stare at them in mocking disbelief.  “Yes, I was quite the talker in class until the day Mother Male gave me detention for asking for a piece of paper.  I learned not to mess with teachers that day.” 

Since most of us were exercising our jaws while talking to our classmates instead of exercising our brains and hands to complete the mimeographed worksheets she had passed out, Mother Male declared martial law, rapping her meter stick against the chalk tray.  Mouths closed and pencils began to scratch papers around the room. 

I had already rewritten a research report for Mother Male because my writing was illegible.  My handwriting was indeed notoriously bad.  I had gone to pull out sessions for reading and writing from Kindergarten through the fourth grade. I decided I better rewrite the answers to the worksheet on a separate sheet of paper before Mother Male gave me the ultimatum: copy it over or get a zero.  I patted the arm of my classmate Steve, whose mother was our music teacher:  “Do you have any paper?”  Before he could answer, Mother Male told me I had detention.

 I don’t know whether I yet knew the expression righteous indignation, but I knew I had been wronged and my life was in danger.  I would have to stay after school, write an essay, take the late bus home, and walk an extra mile home straight past the high school neighbor who thought my butt was a practice target for his BB gun.  At that end of that peril, I would face my parents.  Since I had never had a detention before, I had no idea what they would do. 

I don’t remember what I wrote in my detention essay except the anger that came out in verse:

Words of the Witch

Just one peepand the Devil will reap,

keeping your soulas the toll.

You may screamtill you hit a beam,

but you will still steamtill you’re a thick cream.

Then your head will be spreadon a thick piece of bread,

and you will be crunchilymunched for lunch.

I don’t remember Mother Male ever talking to me about my essay, but my English teacher talked to me about my poem.  I often wonder what words they shared about me in the teachers’ room that day when they read my essay.  I imagine Mrs. Male’s maternal instincts could have been seen as clearly as her laugh must have been heard.  She was clearly not a witch, but she discerned the future and saw me as a poet.  She taught me much of the spell-power of words.