By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF
Way back when, at the pink dawn of the 20th century, there began a Golden Age of Parenthood that survived until the Sixties. Unruly kids were rare. The great bustling world outside of the home echoed the speeches of Mama and Papa. Juvenile disobedience showed up in colored shoelaces and refusal to eat spinach. It was a golden age.
Courageous politicians, oblivious to the dangers of chicken pox, measles, and mumps, kissed any youngster they could catch. But they hadn’t yet adopted “Our Kids” as rhetorical piñatas. “Our Kids” were still our kids and families thrived like the sunflowers along the back fence.
At suppertime, everyone sat down at the same table at the same time to the same food. Children’s choices were restricted to eating their peas with a spoon or a fork. Nobody took a vote on the main course. The evening meal was an institution, not a cafeteria.
After supper, at bedtime, Pop assumes the duties of bedtime storyteller supported by his allies, the Sandman and “50 Famous Stories,” a mix of classical myths and historical vignettes; each with a character-building theme. Stories stuffed with moral instruction
He camped beside the child’s bed; his pale blue copy of “50 Famous Stories” opened to, say, “King Alfred and the Cakes” or “Androcles and the Lion” or “Damon and Pythias”.
”King Alfred and the Cakes” was clearly in the Top Ten. The king suffers a defeat by the pagan Danes who have turned Britain into a playground for rambunctious Vikings. Dazed and desolate, separated from his entourage, Alfred finds shelter in a peasant’s hut. The man of the house is out chopping wood or setting rabbit traps or whatever unemployed peasants did with large blocks of spare time before the Internet was available to consume whole afternoons. The wife is baking some biscuits. “Watch the cakes,” she tells the weary king, “while I tend to my outdoor chores.”
But cakes take second place to the king’s imperial dreams. Alfred drifts off to a troubled sleep. The cakes burn. The peasant’s wife returns to a cottage full of smoke and blackened scones that pigs would reject. This abject commoner lays into the king. “You foolish man, you’ve burned our supper.” She says this to the king!! He humbly listens and learns. He does not say; “It depends on what you mean by burned. Maybe caramelized, crusty, and crispy, but not burned!” The moral: Nobody looks down on the law. Even kings have responsibilities to the lowest of their subjects.
Then there’s “Androcles and the Lion”. An escaped slave befriends a beast – a lion tortured by a thorn in his paw. The slave, full of pity, approaches the snarling beast and performs a thornectomy. Later, the slave is recaptured – condemned to the arena where he has an appointment with a starved beast. Guess who? Yes, the same grateful lion who licks the slave up and down; not like a lamb chop, but a friend. The emperor, moved by this affectionate relationship, grants their freedom. The awed spectators stare as the mixed-species pair leave the arena had in hand; so to speak. Moral: Kindness is repaid. Don’t be afraid to help a stranger. You’ll both benefit even if he’s of another species.
“Cornelia and Her Jewels” has a lesson for both storyteller and listening child. Cornelia, a matron, is poor but hangs out with rich pals whose fingers, arms, and necks ache with the weight of their jewelry. One day as the ladies are having a cup of tea in Cornelia’s shabby home, spitefulness prevails over friendship.
“Cornelia,” says one of her pseudo-pals, “where are YOUR jewels?”
“Just a minute,” responds the modest matron. She leaves the room. The hens cackle in her absence. She appears in the doorway – her arms around three beautiful children. “These are my jewels,” says Cornelia with dewy eyes. Moral: Down with materialism. First things first. And for the little listener, there’s a second moral; you are of great value to Mom and Dad.
Another bestseller is “Damon and Pythias”. A cruel tyrant imprisons an innocent and decrees a date for execution. But Damon, the doomed prisoner, pleads for his final farewell to his mother who lives in a faraway land. The King, Mr. Big-Heart, allows Pythias, Damon’s friend, to stand in for him. “If you don’t return at the appointed hour, Pythias takes the Headsman’s stroke,” cautions the tyrant. It’s a done deal. Damon sails to see Mom.
The fatal day arrives, but Damon has been delayed by a storm. His proxy is unperturbed, confident. The reader should not be nervous. Happy endings abound like virtues in “50 Famous Stories”. Damon, of course, returns at the 11th hour; just as the executioner is testing his arm with a ripe melon. The king, touched to the heart by such friendship, is spiritually reborn and releases the devoted pair. “My kingdom for such friendship,” he cries.
Not so subtle morals: Love your Mama. Friendship, better than megabucks, means never having to apologize because you’re late; and finally, goodness is the alchemist that morphs the evil heart.
“50 Famous Stories,” where are you when we need you?