The Why of Whimsy

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I’m not sure why she did it. It honestly wasn’t like her.


She was the type who believed in patience with rowdy junior high boys and in baking county-famous brownies for sick neighbors. She offered migrant children rides to Vacation Bible School and she knew all thirteen verses of Amazing Grace by heart. She forbade me from watching Star Trek because of aliens, Batman because of violence, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in because Goldie Hawn did the twist in a bikini.


Memorizing this just didn’t fit her principles.


But it was her idea. A moving of the waters from her own childhood, I suppose — one of those faint memories, reeled up from her briny subconsciousness, like snagging a bottom-feeding bass on a well-cast lure.


She’d learned it by heart as a child, and therefore, so must I.


The fact that I couldn’t read at the time proved no deterrent. Mama recited the piece to me line by line, replacing the author’s Hoosier dialect with her own Texas drawl. She added syllables without warning, flattened “I’s” without mercy, and changed “if you” to “effin’s you” every time. I caught on just fine, ‘cause after all, in our neck of the woods, “everybody tawked like that anyways”.


My assignment consisted of rote repetition, the kind that I would later find so ineffective in learning Chinese. Yet, when you are four, your mind has room for rhymes to root and this particular one burrowed down deeply. In fact, I can still recite it almost word for word.


It’s not a useful piece of work, like a psalm to be hummed or a Scripture to provide comfort. It doesn’t impress with Shakespearean prose or conflict by Darwinian controversy. At the turn of the last century, I suppose it instructed the young, but by the time it filtered down to the 1960s, it was simply a catchy rhyme, rolling around in my head like a pinball seeking a pocket.


Although still present, I rarely use it now. It never seems to fit into current conversations concerned with tolerance and political correctness. I did try it out on some college students a few years ago, but they merely reacted with stunned silence and a few nervous twitters.


Today, I’m sharing it with you as a glimpse into both my childhood as well as my mother’s. I wish I could recite it in person, but finding this to be virtually impossible, I’ll print out the West Texas version instead.


“Little Orphan Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley


“Liddle Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;
An’ all us other childern, when the supper thangs is done,
We sits around the kitchun fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-list’nin’ to witches-tales that Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘r gonna git cha
Effin’s you

“Onc’t they was a liddle boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–
So when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wadn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
An’ seeked him up the chimny-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found was jist his pants an’ roundabout–
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘r gonna git cha
Effin’s you

“An’ one time a liddle girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin,
An’ make fun of ever’one, an’ all her blood an’ kin;
An’ onc’t, when they was “cumpany,” an’ ole folks was there,
She mocked ‘em an’ shocked ‘em, an’ she sed didn’t care!
An’ jist then as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,
They was two big a-Black Thangs a-standin’ by her side,
An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘r gonna git cha
Effin’s you

“An’ Liddle Orphant Annie sez when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew’s all quenched away,–
You’d better mind yer parents, an’ yer teachers fond an’ dear,
An’ churish ‘em ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns’ll git cha
Effin’s you

Maybe this was like my mother, after all. Not the part about believing in goblins, but the part about believing in whimsy. In the midst of her deep faith, Mama also loved to laugh. Stories of her own childhood reveal a mischievous and spirited youth, whose good-natured disposition infected others like a highly contagious flu of fun.


Between diligent lessons of perseverance and self-control, Mama taught me playfulness and joy. She believed in a balance between conviction and comedy to withstand the commonplace. When I became a mother myself, her example reassured and comforted me when I questioned my own qualifications as a parent. Mama demonstrated that the messiness of parenting doesn’t ruin the child when coupled with purpose and prayer.


Recently, after spending the holidays with us, our six-year-old grandson told his mother he thought I was crazy. “Why??” Hannah queried, seeking clarification. “Because Kiki is always laughing, Joshua replied. “I think she must be a little crazy.”


I had to giggle over the account. It was the best news I’d heard all week. Maybe my mother taught me more than just a whimsical verse after all.


1967 jpeg

My parents laughing over a gag gift that would be passed around for several years.