It started out innocently enough. Lights-out songs had always been part of our bedtime ritual. Then, a few years ago, during a bout of laryngitis, I started whispering stories of my childhood. Upstairs, in the dark, under the additional cover of a pair of quilts, my children heard all about my childhood escapades: how little mama got stitches in her knee, how she got more stitches in her knee, how she got in trouble for doing x, or y, or z. For the most part, these plots, now known, affectionately, as “Little Mama Stories,” seemed to function as light-hearted entertainment with an implicit lesson or moral. Take “The Spelling Bee That Went South,” for example, a story drawn from the years when I lived in rural Georgia. Wouldn’t they learn how to spell words like “sincerely” and “debutante” when they heard me tell them about the mayor with the incomprehensibly thick southern accent who was the caller at the county spelling bee? And, wouldn’t “The Bad-Turn of the Mud-bath” keep them from playing “pigsty” in the five or ten idle minutes before we left for dinner or some formal event?
Recently, though, I’ve been having doubts about my “Little Mama Stories,” because my children appear to be reenacting the cautionary tales in my repertoire. A few weeks ago, for instance, one of them managed to find a discarded lip-gloss, smearing it all over the bathroom cupboards. Sure, any little person might have tried it. But, within the context of “Lil’ Mama, the Lipstick, and the Wardrobe,” my child’s rounds with the lip-gloss did not seem so innocuous. Both of them know full well that I had once smeared bright red lipstick all over my mother’s bedroom set, and that the adult with the largest hand in the house had given me a terrible spanking for it. Were they trying to be bad, like me? Could they have been wondering, all this time, what the modern-day, non-violent equivalent of a “terrible spanking” might turn out to be?
Worse yet, within a few days of the lip-gloss incident, this self-same child smuggled an entire package of gum upstairs and chewed it during the night. Next morning came the confession – my child, creeping into the living room, crying for help in removing a wad of gum from the side of a favourite stuffed fox. Hadn’t I told them “The Affair of the Gum Necklace,” the story of the goo-chain that had required a vat of petroleum jelly from the mechanic’s shop in order to be removed from my neck? Didn’t they know that playing with gum alone in one’s room was dangerous? They had asked for that story all winter long…
So much for my “Little Mama Stories,” then, if the kids were just going to repeat after me and turn to mischief. Though, in retrospect, I have to figure that these modern reenactments of my mistakes, while terribly uncanny in terms of what I personally hear and see, are not the worst of childhood sins. And, perhaps, I’m providing my children with “safe-enough” models of misbehaviour. There’s no axe-throwing or fire-starting, after all, in my autobiography. Still, for the time being, I’m going to stick to the plots in which I play the angel or, at least, the sad, forgiving victim of a slightly unfortunate fate. Bring on the old southern gentleman, then, and his queer pronunciation of words like “circumspect” [sear-COOM-spekt] or, my own missed word, “sincerely” [sin-SARE-ill-ee], until he reached the more familiar “debutante,” that is, at the far end of the line. Best teach them better spelling while the lights are out at night.
Roseanne Carrara is the author of A Newer Wilderness. She blogs about her Summer of Funner at Summer of Funner 2011.