The Brownie Book

Posted on June 4, 2011


When I was very young my mother always read to us. I remember her reading many of the classics, like Winnie the Pooh and King Arthur to me when I must of been about 5. My father occasionally read to us, too. Things like The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson, and Gunga Din by Kipling were made for his stentorian voice. He also used to read to us from The Brownie Book. This was a book so old it must be a first addition, written by Palmer Cox. (If you need a photography tie in, the Brownie cameras were named after his beloved characters.)  For some reason, those stories, although I don’t remember them intellectually, really resonate with me emotionally. That is, I couldn’t remember the stories, but I remembered all of the feelings associated with having them read to us.

Somehow, the family lost the book. (I know, hard to believe for those who know us, we had an actual wing of our house devoted to a library.) In one particularly difficult time in my sister’s life I tracked down a copy through a rare book dealer and paid triple digits for it. Then, I found my own copy in a local used book store, in better shape (sorry Beth), for $5. I lost that copy in the fire (sorry again).

Recently I came across another copy of the book and thought it would be the perfect thing to read to the kids. Well, it was not. First, the stories are all in rhyme, a similar rhyming structure to The Night Before Christmas. (Which my dad still reads every Christmas Eve before we open our stockings.) Second, things I knew all about when I was a kid like horses and bridles and bits and using a slate in school, are as foreign to the kids as if I was reading a chemistry text book. They just rolled their eyes and said “I’m bored!”

When I was a child, nothing in those stories needed explaining to me. Probably, part of it is coastal. Back East, you live history. My parents 175-year old dining room table is a reproduction to go with the 275-year old chairs and  was once part of the Studebaker estate. They just moved from a house built in 1837 to one born in 1732. Every house on our street had a barn, loaded with one or two centuries worth of jetsam. These were our play grounds.

We went to museums and talked to people who had lived through both World Wars. Hell, I grew up with a slew of people born before Washington was a state.  I remember my Great Aunt telling me about the first time she saw an airplane (it landed in her backyard to show people what an airplane was), had indoor plumbing, electricity, a radio, TV… what a life she lead!  My Great Grandmother was born just after the Civil War. She remembers the U.S Centennial. The first one. I remember people interviewing her for the biCentennial when she was 103.

But part of it is cultural. Once we revered it, now we don’t care about the past. “It’s boring!”  We are rootless, traditional-less. My neighbors’ trash overflows with out-dated toys, where I grew up playing with my father’s erector set and trains.

After the kids went to bed I took the Brownie Book into my room and experienced memories no children will ever have again. You just can’t share magic, I thought.

But maybe, just maybe, I’ll ask for their patience and try again. Magic deserves at least two tries, don’t you think?

Posted in: Writing