Monday, 11 May 2015

"Mamma's Kindness to Me" - Cathy Butler

The Author of "Mamma's Kindness to Me"
at an even more tender age
Every generation of my family includes at least one obsessive archivist (in common parlance, hoarder). My great-great-grandfather, for example, who worked for the British Museum all his adult life, effectively made hoarding his profession. He was a fascinating man, but may go down in one of history’s minor footnotes as the official who diddled Alfred Russel Wallace out of sixpence just as Wallace was getting over by being gazumped by Charles Darwin. My grandfather, big in the Esperanto movement, had so many Esperanto books in his not-very-big house that they later became the basis of the Esperanto Society’s own library. We might say that both these gentlemen hoarded to some purpose. But their retentive habits mean that some items other families would certainly have thrown away at an early date have survived, and come down to me (for yes, I have been officially named as Hoarder Designate for my generation).

Here’s a good example. Lots of children make little books, with illustrations, for their own amusement or that of their parents. Some, perhaps, even dream of growing up to be authors (cough cough), but the things they write at the age of six are unlikely to be of publishable quality, and though they may be kept long enough for their parents to embarrass them by showing them to future boyfriends or girlfriends they are unlikely to be handed reverently down the generations. They’ll be lost in moves, or discreetly binned, or simply fall to pieces, long before that happens.

Not so with my family. Here then is a volume penned by my grandfather in a pocket account book, circa 1890: Mammas’s Kindness to Me by M. C. Butler, author of Little Things to Read on Sundays. Evidently this was not his first production, and like any good author he hopes to pique his readers’ interest by reminding them of past literary triumphs.

This is followed by several pages of closely argued prose extolling Mamma’s many virtues, which include her assiduity in providing religious instruction and her financial generosity: “One of the things is, she gives me lessons, and each time she gives me halfpennies, or even pennies when I do my lessons very nicely, although she has not half the money I have.”

Money is a recurrent theme: my great-grandfather was a curate, and the family had come down in the world somewhat. Mamma not only makes and mends young Montagu Christie’s clothes: “She nurses and heals me and pays a very great deal of money for the doctor to come and make me well, I am sure!”

Eventually our author begins to run out of steam. The last refuge of the writer who's running out of things to say? Make a list! Note the subtle legerdemain of "4. Feeding me; 5. Reading to me; 25. Twenty other things."

We are now beginning to wish we hadn't made the book quite so long...

Oh, what a perfunctory postcript for Papa!

What especially intrigues me about this book is its combination of strangeness and familiarity. The language is quaint and the religiosity unfamiliar to most British people today. But the urge to make little books is one I recognize, as well as some of the shifts used to bring them to a hasty conclusion once the well of inspiration has run dry. The pictures are particularly interesting, since they are so exactly like the pictures drawn by children of that age today, and probably every other day. I’m no psychologist, but I find it startling to see the same blobs and blocks that loomed from my own children’s early efforts mirrored here in their great-grandfather’s drawings of more than a century earlier, differentiated only by Mamma's full skirts and a few late-Victorian props: a piano; a medicine bottle; and, of course, a sampler reading “Jesus Wept”.


Katherine Langrish said...

This is fabulous, Cathy! And it reminds me of a Mother's Day card my husband drew for his mother back in the 1960s when he was a little boy. On the front is a pencil drawing of the BVM (noseless, and with a sinister lipless grin). Inside, the wonky inscription: 'Keep my Mother from Satan's snare!' My mother-in-law must have been - like your great-grandmother - as much tickled as touched.

Catherine Butler said...

Gosh, are you sure that was the 1960s? But it's a noble sentiment in any age.

Joan Lennon said...

So interesting! Thanks for sharing - and hoard on!

Penny Dolan said...

Kath, I think it's the power of those alliterative words that attracted the (then) young boy. Once you've heard there is such a thing as "Satan's snare" how can you not want to keep your Ma safe from it, even if you're not sure what it is? Such scope for the imagination! Religious cards were much more common in Catholic circles than they are now and probably got louder approval than secular (ie prayer-less) cards. That little card's a historical cultural icon!

I did enjoy this post and the sight of all those pages, Cathy - especially the swift list!

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