Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rumpeta, rumpeta

The very best children's books are those that everyone enjoys, from baby to great grandma. Phrases from them are absorbed and become part of a family's shared experience, triggering laughter that cannot be explained to anyone outside the magic circle of that particular memory.

One of our family favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, with wonderful illustrations by Raymond Briggs. My children loved it when they were small and we all still pick up on anyone in a restaurant, shop or on TV who fails to ask politely for anything by chorusing, "But you haven't once said please! You haven't ONCE said please!" Now it is granddaughter Millie's turn to love the book. She doesn't understand about manners yet but she loves rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road, joining in with gusto as I turn the pages.

I know that Millie will go on to find more and more to interest and amuse her in the illustrations and that sooner or later she will think the Baby is naughty and then begin to wonder about the morality of the Elephant. (I have a feeling that this book might be responsible for the increase in interest in philosophy among young people, since 1967.)

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a conference of clergy and catechists. There were about 120 of them, from all over the south west of England. They had come, I'm sure, to enjoy a peaceful weekend in sunny North Devon, only to find the worst freak storm in years.

I was used to speaking to groups of teachers and medical practitioners in my professional life but to speak about the gospel to a bishop and crowd of Catholic priests was a real challenge. Who would want to preach to preachers? The gospel reading I had to speak about was John 4:3-30, the story of the woman at the well. After tearing up all attempts at writing something spiritual or intellectual (and most of my hair!) I decided to speak from a place that would be entirely unknown to my listeners - my experience as a mother. And I used my battered old copy of The Elephant and the Bad Baby as my visual aid.

I picked out the words of Jesus to the woman, "Give me a drink" and said how my family, listening to this story, would have cried in unison, "He never ONCE said please." I went through the Bad Baby book, linking the demands of the baby with the many demands that are made on priests and teachers, who frequently feel unappreciated. They loved it! I wasn't challenging their position in any way, I was being a Mum, recognising their tiredness and hurts and comforting them with a story. And, like all good mothers, I finished with a message of hope, if they were to take time over the weekend to listen, even amid the sound of those 12 foot waves crashing onto the rocks outside, they might just hear a "Please."

I bet Elfrida Vipont never expected her children's book to provide the basis of a homily! Or, as the Episcopal Vicar for Formation referred to it - a homilette. Well, he had to draw the distinction, I am a woman after all.


  1. Nice post m. This isn't a book we read, but the idea of manners and courtesy is one that was important in our family as well.

    Our youngest and most precocious, came home from playing outside (remember when kids did that?) to report that one of the neighbor boys had parents who didn't love him. When we asked how he knew that, he said, well people who love their kid, don't let him play with a pocket knife, do they?

    He was about five at the time.

    It's one of the sayings in our family lore and makes me laugh everytime I hear it.

  2. Brilliant, Maureen! Some of the best spiritual lessons come from real life experience. I must to find a copy of The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It sounds like my kind of book. :)

  3. Great story...
    We're also big on manners. When my elder daughter was about 6 my in-laws took her to a local playground. In the sandpit a slightly older child told her to f*** off. Her reply to him 'You've not been very well brought up.'
    The girls' favourite story was The tiger Who Came To Tea. Like you, we still quote from it.

  4. erp, Karin and RO,
    Our stories are so important, aren't they? I think we mothers are the keepers of the family stories and we have to pass them on. Thanks for sharing some of yours - I bet, like me, you have lots more.

  5. Oh Maureen, what a beautiful post! I bet those you spoke to felt ministered to. I heard it said once that the one with experience is always ahead of the one with doctrine, because you can never argue their experience. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Jodi
    What a lovely way of putting things - I'll remember that.


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