Thursday, March 19, 2009


I have been thinking about inheritance. Not about dead people's stuff, but about the gifts that are passed down from one generation to the next. On bad days, it feels like my oldest daughter has inherited all my worst aspects: a fierce temper, stubborn independence, a thin skin. And I sigh and wish it could be otherwise. But on good days, I see that my three year old loves to paint, and in her absorption I see my grandfather, a painter. My five year old can run and run, just like her daddy, and read and read, just like her mamma; and she displays all the intuition and empathy of her grandmother.

Inheritance is important to me, because my children's grandmothers died before they were born. I see my kids mourn the loss of something they never knew, and I mourn, too. I want my children to know their grandmothers, not just in stories but more deeply, perhaps even to recognise their qualities in themselves. And so, as they grow older, I have begun looking for stories about inheritance, stories which will teach them that gifts and abilities run through families and bind generations. Carrying on the gifts may not always be straightforward, or easy, but it is possible. Those who die are not wholly lost. Their qualities live on in us, and it is up to us to explore and refine them.

And as I have been thinking about these things, I stumbled across two short stories by Joan Aiken. Among her many other books, Aiken wrote at least a dozen collections of stories for junior readers, those readers in between picture books and adolescent or adult fiction. Although they are aimed at ten year olds, I still find them captivating. I am thrilled when I find another dog eared old book of Aiken's stories; I mete them out one by one so I can go to sleep dreaming of friendly cats and apple trees, princes, mermaids and jumble sales. Aiken's stories interweave the everyday, the whimsical and the downright magical. A rainbow is trapped in a poky London house, and put through the wash. The quintessential suburban family is visited by a unicorn, or the Furies, or a ghostly governess. A young girl carves a harp from a fishbone, and stirs a frozen city with her music. A girl uses a London callbox to call across time and warn against Queen Boadicaea's impending attack.

And several of Aiken's stories tackle the theme of inheritance. In 'Moonshine in the Mustard Pot', Deborah visits her Granny. Granny is full of life and vigor. She paints her house in lively colours; she grows her own vegetables; she makes pies and jam; she rides across town on a wobbly old bicycle; she reads the newspaper to her houseplants; she learns a poem a day; she chats to her bees. After Deborah returns home, Granny is hit by a car. Deborah rushes to visit her at the hospital, where Granny tells Deborah to talk to the bees. Deborah goes to the bees, and we are to understand that, in telling them, she comprehends that her Granny is dying and that she is to inherit her grandmother's gifts. The story is very simple, but strong. It is not remotely maudlin: Granny dies; Deborah cries, then gets on with the business of living. It is a good story for any older child, but particularly one who may be facing the death of a beloved grandparent. The story tells them, in effect, that they too may carry on aspects of their grandparents' lives; their grandparents, though sorely missed, will live on in them.

Similarly, in 'The Gift Giving', a child takes on his namesake's gift. When Mark's uncle pipes a special tune during a gift-giving ceremony, blind Grandmother touches gifts and describes their appearance perfectly. After Uncle Mark dies, Grandmother pines so terribly that the younger Mark learns to make a pipe and teaches himself to play; and his cousin Sammle helps to recall the special tune. When the time comes for the next gift-giving ceremony, Mark plays and Grandmother is again able to perceive the gifts placed in her lap. This story is especially beautiful because Mark strives for the gift of music in order to give the gift of insight to his Grandmother; his gift enables the gifts of others.

Each story is part of a collection marked by wit, beauty, whimsy, and a touch of melancholy. Aiken's stories are nourishing stuff. They are by turns beautiful, sobering, or just delightfully ridiculous; and her mixture of the magical and the mundane, the folkloric and the suburban, is unique. Although these books are well and truly out of print, they are worth the time and effort it will take you to find them. Perhaps your public library has them; or perhaps you will be lucky enough to locate second hand copies. Or perhaps, if you ask around, you will inherit them!

> Joan Aiken 'Moonshine in the Mustard Pot' in The Faithless Lollybird and Other Stories (New York: Doubleday, 1978); 'The Gift Giving' in Up the Chimney Down and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

1 comment:

  1. Lovely insight into you and your kids - thanks for putting it out there... Love Bec