When I was little, we spent a great deal of time overseas, first in Bermuda, then Japan, then Taiwan. Between every posting (my father was career Air Force), we'd go home to my grandparents little bungalow next to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power intake and power station at Cottonwood, in the Owens River Valley in California.
The first thing my brother and I would do upon arriving, after we had been greeted by grandparents with hugs and cookies, was to grab a timeworn copy of The Peter Patter Book of Nursery Rhymes (by Leroy F. Jackson, illustrated exquisitely by Blanche Fisher Wright) and curl up on Grandma's lap to hear the poems read aloud:
Peter lives upon a mountain
Pretty near the sun,
Knows the bears and birds and rabbits
Nearly every one;
Has a home among the alders,
Bed of cedar bark,
Walks alone beneath the pine trees
Even when it’s dark.
Squirrels tell him everything
That happens in the trees,
Cricket in the gander-grass
Sings of all he sees;
Rimes from bats and butterflies,
Crabs and waterfowl;
But the best of all he gets
From his Uncle Owl.
Sometimes when its day-time,
But mostly in the night,
They sit beneath an oak tree
And hug each other tight,
And tell their rimes and riddles
Where the catty creatures prowl—
Funny little Peter Patter
And his Uncle Owl.
The telling of exploits involving one or more of our uncles was part of the total experience of hearing these poems. Since my father's two younger brothers were over ten years his junior, and close to one another in age, they had developed a friendly but spirited sibling rivalry that revealed itself upon hearing a particular favorite, "Jelly Jake and Butter Bill."
Jelly Jake and Butter Bill
One dark night when all was still
Pattered down the long, dark stair,
And no one saw the guilty pair;
Pushed aside the pantry-door
And there found everything galore,—
Honey, raisins, orange-peel,
Cold chicken aplenty for a meal,
Gingerbread enough to fill
Two such boys as Jake and Bill.
Well, they ate and ate and ate,
Gobbled at an awful rate
Till I’m sure they soon weighed more
Than double what they did before.
And then, it’s awful, still it’s true,
The floor gave way and they went thru.
Filled so full they couldn’t fight.
Slowly they sank out of sight.
Father, Mother, Cousin Ann,
Cook and nurse and furnace man
Fished in forty-dozen ways
After them, for twenty days;
But not a soul has chanced to get
A glimpse or glimmer of them yet.
And I’m afraid we never will—
Poor Jelly Jake and Butter Bill.
After she'd read (or rather recited, since she knew many of them by heart) about Jake and Bill, she proceed to tell us the story of how, when her boys were little, my Uncle Art would exclaim upon hearing the line "And no one saw the guilty pair," "Well I saw 'em too!" This was brought on by the fact that Art's older brother was named Owen, which sounded all too much like "no one"--so if Owen could see them, so could Art.
Of course, my brother and I always thought this was hilarious (Art was also known to claim, whenever anyone referred to Owen's Lake, the then-dry lake bed that dominated the landscape, "It's my lake too!"). We never got tired of hearing these stories, nor of hearing my grandmother tell them.
At some point after I'd gone off to college, married, and had children, I realized that I wanted to share those poems with my own kids. But by that time the book had disappeared from Gram's house, absconded with by some cousin or another. So one might be able to imagine my joy when several years later she acquired a copy through a book search service and presented to me and the children around the time of their birthdays in 1980, when my daughter turned one and my son four.
Lately I've been rearranging rooms and getting ready for an onslaught of visitors this coming December (my daughter will be graduating from college, at long last, after several years of working full time and going to school), and things keep reappearing after long years of being tucked away in odd corners. One of the books resurrected from a spider-webby corner of a closet was none other than the Peter Patter book. I thought of scanning some of the images to talk about here in the Cabinet, but a quick Google search led me to a Project Gutenburg edition, complete with illustrations.
Several years ago I saw a few reprints for sale in Barnes and Noble, but they had been "cleaned up" in order to meet to the present-day guidelines for political correctness to which publishers must adhere (with good reason, for the most part). But since I managed not to associate the "big black Bugoo" in my favorite rhyme, "Polly Picklenose" (which I can still recite from memory) with African Americans or become a racist as a result of reading this book (any more than I became a racist or a sexist from reading Enid Blyton as a child), I wonder about how much risk is actually involved. Gutenberg has, alas, used the revised version. A few unsavory stereotypes have been removed, but the bulk of the book is just as I remembered it, Wright's beautiful pictures, and Jackson's silly, funny, still-entertaining rhymes.
Also available through Project Gutenberg are Wright's illustrations in The Goody-Naughty Book written by Sarah Cory Rippey, and (perhaps her best known) The Real Mother Goose.
Images: The cover drawing, and "Jelly Jake and Butter Bill." The image just above is for "Hippity Hop to Bed."