Saturday, February 7, 2009

Helen's Babies, by John Habberton

This is an old book. I mean REALLY old. Like 1876 copyright old.

It came in one of those mystery packages my mom likes to send me when she's cleaning out her closets. Apparently my grandmother had given this to me (there was an inscription on the title page) and I had never realized it.

So when I had nothing else to read and had some time to myself, I thought I had better finally read it. Grandmother has been dead for, let me think, 21 years now (wow) so maybe it's about time.

Definitely not an award winner, but quaintly charming for all that. A young man receives a letter from his married sister, begging him to come housesit while she and her husband are away for two weeks. And would he be a dear and just check on her little angel children once in a while? Yes you will won't you?

And then all hell breaks loose. The "little angels" are five year old Budge, and three year old Toddie, and Uncle Harry finds himself saving them from near disaster time after time. The young man gets an occasional break when the hired girl gives them their baths or puts the younger one down for a nap. However much of his time is trying to live up to their expectations of bedtime and storytime and so one, continually saying, "that's not how Papa does it." They get into his trunk, destroy a bouquet he tries to send to young lady down the road, get trapped in mud that he has to rescue them from (and then appear all spattered in said mud as the certain young lady rides down the road) and generally drive him to distraction.

It's fun to see how different the children's lives are compared to modern children. These children are allowed to go outside by themselves with apparently no supervision. These children are able to climb outside on the piazza roof outside their bedroom windows. (What no crib with closely set bars?) The five year old is allowed to drive a little cart pulled by a goat by himself (Yes there were two accidents with the goat and the author relates it's a good thing they landed on their heads:-0) No child resistant safety caps on drugs - (can you say Paregoric?), no supervision when they play with rubber cement (oh sweetie, you redecorated your room), and no television or radio means they are busy, busy, busy all the time (where's the Ritalin?).
Then there is the fact that the younger one wears a dress, and they both have knotted towels for dolls, and that's perfectly alright. Now, there is no mention of diaper changing, so I can only assume that if the three year old isn't potty trained, that it would be easier to change said diapers if he is in a dress.

The war that is referred to is of course the civil war, in which the young man and the boys' father both participated. Knowing that, you can bet there are traditional views that men and women have their separate places in society. I didn't see any overt mysogyny, but I did like one paragraph that I think I will quote here. The young man has just put the nephews to bed, and he falls down on his own bed without changing to sleepwear beforehand and ponders:

Mothers of American boys, accept from me a tribute of respect, which no words can fitly express - of wonder greater than any of the great things of the the world has inspired - of adoration as earnest and devout as the Catholic pays to the Virgin. In a single day, I, a strong man, with nothing else to occupy my mind, am reduced to physical and mental worthlessness by the necessities of two boys not overmischievous or bad. And you - Heaven only knows how - have unbroken weeks, months, years, yes lifetimes of just such experiences, and with them, the burden of household cares, of physical ills and depressions, of mental anxieties that pierce your hearts with as many sorrows as grieved the Holy Mother of old. Compared with thy endurance, that of the young man, the athlete, is as weakness; the secret of they nerves, wonderful even in their weakness, is as great as that of the power of the winds. To display decision, thy opportunities are more frequent than those of the greatest statesmen; thy heroism laughs into insignificance that of fort and field; thou art trained in a school of diplomacy such as the most experienced court cannot furnish. Do scoffers say thou canst not hold the reins of government? Easier is it to rule a band of savages than to be the successful autocrat of thy little kingdom. Compared with the ways of men, even thy failures are full of glory. Be thy faults what they may, they one great, mysterious, unapproachable success places thee, in desert, far above warrior, rabbi or priest.

Now, do you think that is "putting women on a pedestal" or just a guy that finally has an inkling of what it's like to raise children?

To put a nice little ending to the story, the young man gets engaged to the young lady. She was apparently impressed with how patience he was with his nephews, and judged him prime marrying material. The young man even learns to love his nephews despite all the trouble they give him. You're probably thinking "how sappy" but, well, in a way it was refreshing.

If you happen to run across a copy, don't throw it out right away.

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