Sweep out the sukkah and check the china shepherdess for buttons, because it’s time for another edition of C+S Book Club! Rather than lamenting that Amy March is a total bitch, or revealing that Marilla Cuthbert was, in fact, a creepy church hag, today we’re going to talk about someone who is better than you and I could ever dream of being: Mama from Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family. Mama was so clever and calculating that I almost wanted to call her an evil genius, but she was also the kindest, most chill mother in RL-4 chapter book history.
Look. I don’t have children. But I did read that one book about how our children would be classier if we raised them like French children, and I’ve seen some episodes of SuperNanny, which is a show about how our children would be classier if we raised them like British children from 1905. Plus I’ve read those articles that Facebook friends post about why children shouldn’t have technology and fast food, as well as those other articles that Facebook friends post about why children should have technology and fast food. And let me tell you: not a ONE of those so-called experts had anything on Mama. Case in point: her dusting scheme.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then chances are you didn’t read All-Of-A-Kind Family. If you did read it, the dusting ploy is seared in your memory along with chocolate babies and that time Henny got lost in Coney Island. (FREAKING HENNY, am I right?) The chapter was titled Dusting Is Fun, because it was 1951 and Sydney Taylor didn’t really have to try (honestly, what was her competition in children’s entertainment? The show Lassie. That’s it.). By the end of that chapter you, a grubby-faced 90s kid wearing a t-shirt decorated with puff paint, wished you were an old-fashioned child in the Lower East Side dusting for free. And for fun. That is how powerful Mama’s dusting plot was.
Ready for the scheme IN ITS ENTIRITY? Hold on to your pinafore. Mama hid buttons around the front parlor. By the way, their house only had like 4 rooms and one of them was a parlor used strictly for fancy decorations and pianos, that’s how high-class Mama was. Okay, so then the dusting girl had to find all of the buttons while she was dusting. Also Mama got straight-up sneaky with it, like those buttons were under table legs and piano keys. You had to DUST. IT. UP. If you found all of the buttons, you had done a good job dusting.
All right, let’s talk about the genius parts of this plan:
- The girls never knew how many buttons there were. Say you’ve found 5 buttons. You couldn’t just call it quits at that point, because maybe there were 9 buttons that day. You had to dust every damn thing, and only then could you be sure you had all of the buttons.
- Mama kept it fresh. Sometimes she’d bring out the buttons a few times a week, and sometimes she’d wait two weeks because what did she care, she had those little dusting girls under her spell and they would WAIT FOR IT. They’d wait for those buttons.
- In case you missed it, the prize was that you had done a good job dusting. Mama raised her kids to want to do a very good job at something because it feels good to know that you’ve done a very good job. Mama quarantined four children with scarlet fever in a spotless 4-room apartment during Passover; she knew that you didn’t get a ticker tape parade every time you did a damn chore.
- But Mama was the best ever because one week she hid a penny every day. Judging by how much candy the girls could buy for a penny, it was basically a dollar. Do you know how great it is to find a dollar when you’re cleaning? Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie sure do.
Mama wasn’t all dusting and parlors, though. She also was really good looking. The girls introduced her to the Library Lady and they were so proud because even though she had, at the time, 5 children, she didn’t look like the other women in the neighborhood: “like mattresses tied about the middle.” Which admittedly sounds harsh, but you know exactly what they mean. I’m sure they’d all love Mama just as much if she were a lumpy mattress-lady, but the point is Mama had a whole bunch of kids and her figure and outfits were still on point.
While Mama enforced rules, she was lenient when it mattered. When Sarah made that big fuss about not eating her rice soup that one day, Mama stuck to her guns, but once Sarah had a few bites of the gross congealed soup she let her move onto something more appetizing. (I loved re-reading that chapter, because it so reminded me of when you’d get stubborn about something or throw a fit as a kid, and you wouldn’t even know why you were doing it, but you couldn’t will yourself to stop.) And when Gertie and Charlotte used their pennies to buy candy and crackers and ate them in bed, Mama played it like she had no clue, just because it makes kids feel smart and important having a secret.
The All-Of-A-Kind Family was medium-poor. They were second generation-ish Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1912 long before their neighborhood became some sort of real estate holding for foreign billionaires. However, Papa had a scrap shop and they lived on one floor of a house instead of in a crowded tenement, so they were doing pretty okay. Mama was really good at being medium-poor. She was frugal where it counted, but she still allowed for splurges like a trip to Coney Island, or a treat when they went to the market.
If I can have one quibble about Mama, it’s that she finally had a boy and she named it Charlie. Look. One of my favorite real-life little boys is named Charley. It’s a great name. PLUS Adult Charlie from the book is such a cool grownup. You spend the whole time hoping that he and the Library Lady will meet and hit it off and … well. You know the rest. (Also: another post about the Library Lady, maybe?). So it’s great that Mama names a kid after him. It’s just … Mama. Did you forget you already have a Charlotte? She’s going to have so much Middle Child Syndrome. On the whole Mama picked good names – Library Lady even said! – so I can’t be too annoyed. And at least she didn’t name him after Uncle Hyman.
If I have kids, I’m going to skip the parenting guide telling me to make my children be more French. I’ll bypass the naughty step. I’ll steer clear of the Facebook click-bait. As far as I’m concerned, the best parenting guide there is this one weird old chapter book with no real plot. If I am even 1/10th of the benevolent evil genius Mama is, I think my kids would turn out just fine.