Friday, May 8, 1998

For Mother's Day: A modern Mother Goose

by Mary Roberts

Last week Mrs. Clark's second graders' special assignment was to browse through poetry books, choose a favorite poem, copy it into their blue homework books, memorize the poem and recite it for the class. I went to my collection of children's poetry to pull some books for my daughter. The same week, Lois Dennison, one of my second-grade piano students, began a turn at the nursery rhyme, "The Old Woman in the Shoe." This rhyme, as did many of the Mother Goose collection, often left a nagging, defeated feeling in my chest:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn't know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread,

And whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.

Even as a child it was hard for me to imagine such a reality—a mother with a slew of kids who didn't know what to do. I was the oldest of eight children and my mother was and still is one of the most resourceful women I know. She always knew what to do.

We began our day by 1950s nutritional standards with a healthy breakfast of eggs, toast, fresh citrus and milk. As I section my son's grapefruit in the morning, I imagine my mother sectioning fresh citrus for nine. My favorite egg was poached and my mom poached them in boiling water to perfection. And I still consider it an art form, the way my mom cooked up a dozen or more easy-over eggs on toast, and got us off to school on time with hair combed and faces washed.

As a young child, I laughed at that woman in the shoe who didn't know what to do. Back then I thought that rhyme was rather comical. How could a mom not know what to do? My mom sewed and fashioned my clothes, which set the standard for fine workmanship (or should I say "workwomanship?"), quality and good taste that I have to this day. And I have wondered over the years how many buttons she sewed on shirts of irritable kids ready to leave for school, nagging, "Hurry up, Mom, I'm gonna be late!" At sewing on buttons, as with thousands of other mundane tasks which require skill but are taken for granted by children and most of society, my mom was a pro.

So when Lois began "The Old Woman in the Shoe" during her piano lesson, I knew exactly what to do. I pulled from my collection of children's poetry a book called Nursery Rhymes by the clever and kind Father Gander (Dr. Doug Larche), published by Advocacy Press in Santa Barbara California.

Change Mother Goose?

Remembering my own reaction to this rhyme, I wanted to present Lois with another viewpoint. This rhyme about the old woman, as do many from the Mother Goose Collection, carries a powerful subliminal message. Ironically, because of the context in which the rhymes are often presented (a happy music class or a cozy bedtime reading between child and parent), the message becomes ingrained and we don't realize it.

This is why I seized a teaching moment and pulled Father Gander from the shelf. An enlightened poet and professor, this family man has rewritten the Mother Goose rhymes.

Since the second half of the 19th century these bits of folk songs and

remnants of custom and ritual have become household words. Some of the rhymes, written to commemorate an historical event or to comment on current politics or religion, were written for adults and not for children. Only the rhyming alphabets, lullabies and games were actually intended for children.

Dr. Larche believes that "the sing-song qualities (of the nursery rhymes) and resulting enchantment lull people into ignoring the occasional messages of violence, sexism and discrimination." Dr. Larche maintains, as I do, that the original Mother Goose should be "preserved in literary history for what they were, the commentary on the times done fanciful in rhyme."

But for today, we must take the delights of the old Mother Goose and apply them to the ideals we want our children to have. Some of these ideals are:

Equality and love:

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,

Had a wife and wished to keep her.

Treated her with fair respect,

She stayed with him and hugged his neck!


Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down and broke his crown,

And Jill came tumbling after.

Jack and Jill went up a track to fetch the pail again.

They climbed with care, got safely there,

And finished the job they began.

As a veteran early-childhood music teacher, I advocate a mindful approach to the presentation of rhymes and songs to children. Certainly changing words, as Father Gander has done, can take the beloved Humpty Dumpty and make it more equitable and empowering for all involved:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the horses, women and men

Put Humpty Dumpty together again.

A wise resourceful mother

Now back to my strong, wise, resourceful mother who had eight children and did know what to do. And that's not to say my family was perfect. I am still dealing with all the fallout from messages that shackled girls growing up in the '50s and early '60s. But luckily, I did receive and am still receiving strong messages from my mother through her actions.

When my youngest bother was in pre-school, my mother, with encouragement and support from my father, returned to her nursing profession. She became a licensed nursing home administrator, and spent the final decade of her career as a highly respected nursing home director. Now in retirement, this mentally, spiritually and emotionally fit grandmother of eight children swims like a teenager and has a longer workout session at the gym then I do. Of course she's got time now, hard-earned time that is hers to revel in.

A dedication to Mom

It's to you, Mom, that I dedicate my own rendition of "The Old Woman in the Shoe:"

That graceful, strong woman

who lived in the shoe.

Raised eight healthy children,

and taught us what to do.

Skills we all know to make

life truly grand,

Love, patience, hope,

how to give folks a hand.

Happy Mothers Day!

Mary Roberts of North Road teaches a pre-school music class for the Carlisle Recreation Commission.