My grandfather turned 90 in January.
“Seems like you can find lots of things on the internet,” he said a couple weeks ago when I got here. “For instance, I’ve been thinking about this poem my mother used to recite. It started like this:
“Tom Twist was a wonderful fellow,
no boy was so nimble and strong;
He could turn ten summersaults backwards,
and stand on his head all day long;
No wrestling, or leaping, or running,
This tough little urchin could tire;
His muscles were all gutta-percha,
and his sinews bundles of wire.”
He recited this and several more stanzas in which Tom becomes a sailor and gets shipwrecked on an island with some hostile folk who put him in a “boy-coop” to fatten him up. He lost the thread somewhere in between Tom escaping the cage and flying away on the back of a Condor, but said there was more.
It wasn’t hard to find. I printed out the poem and Grandpa read the whole thing out loud to me, chuckling all the while. “How about that,” he said. “My mother used to recite that to me, and I got to thinking about it and wondered if you could find it. And you did. How about that.”
I put the printed pages in a paper slot near the computer, and for a week or so he pulled them out whenever the care-takers came for Grandma, to entertain them with Tom’s exploits. After he flies away on the back of the boa-constrictor-eating Condor, he winds up in China, works as an acrobat for a while, gets homesick for ham and eggs, and goes home to surprise his mother. It’s funny, some of it, but not a poem I would now choose to introduce students to people of cultures not their own. Different times.
The care-takers laughed and remarked that it is amazing how much of the poem Grandpa remembers even without the copy in his hands. It’s at least three pages long.
His mother had the same kind of memory. When I was young, she lived here, sleeping on a bed on the sun-porch and sitting during the day in a little arm-chair in front of it. She was in her late 90s at the time, and passed the time listening to the Christian radio station, calling her friend who lived down the road to speak of the day’s commonplaces, and watching us play outside the window. After a dinner of roast beef and gravy over a piece of white bread, she might recite any number of poems in her frail voice, one of her favorites being “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
“I’ve been thinking about that poem,” Grandpa said at breakfast a few days later, “and how much my mother used it to teach me. See, she would recite it, and then I would ask about the words I didn’t understand. I’d ask, ‘What’s a yard-arm?’ or ‘What’s a mandarin?’ and she’d tell me. She used that little poem to teach me a lot of things. There were a lot of ideas in it. She was a special lady, my mother. You probably get tired of hearing me say that, but she was a special lady.”
My great-grandmother finished high school and then was a school-teacher for a year or so before getting married. Her husband, having spent a few formative years working in the mines, kept a box of dynamite in the garage and never tired of blowing things up. Her four sons adored her, though I can’t remember any of their stories that takes place inside the house. She shrugged off their dangerous adventures and boiled potatoes in the kitchen, it seems, and recited Longfellow. She was, even in those sun-porch years, tiny in her housecoat, a remarkable person.
Charlotte Mason has this to say about memory in her book Home Education:
Remembering and Recollecting.––Memory is the storehouse of whatever knowledge we possess; and it is upon the fact of the stores lodged in the memory that we take rank as intelligent beings. The children learn in order that they may remember. Much of what we have learned and experienced in childhood, and later, we cannot reproduce, and yet it has formed the groundwork of after knowledge; later notions and opinions have grown out of what we once learned and knew. That is our sunk capital, of which we enjoy the interest though we are unable to realise. Again, much that we have learned and experienced is not only retained in the storehouse of memory, but is our available capital, we can reproduce, recollect upon demand. This memory which may be drawn upon by the act of recollection is our most valuable endowment.
Even such a non-sensical toss-off as Tom Twist, repeated with delight, meditated on and questioned, can serve a child as part of that store of sunk capital, can help him anchor himself to a far-flung world. And not just children — I had to look up gutta-percha myself (rigid natural latex from the sap of Palaquium trees of Malaysia, discovered by Westerners mid-19th century, used as insulation in the first underwater telegraph cables, then unsustainably harvested till a collapse in the supply).
When Tom Twist gets home, his mother doesn’t recognizes him. She asks him to turn ten summersaults to prove his identity. Tom obliges, but discovers that he is unable to stop summersaulting once he’s started. His tenth turn takes him out of the window and he continues through the yard.
“Then over the patch of potatoes,
And beyond the church on the hill,
She saw him tumbling and turning,
Turning and tumbling still;
Until Tommy’s body diminished
In size to the head of a pin,
Spinning away in the distance,
Where it still continues to spin.”
Illustration from Charles Nordhoff’s The Merchant Vessel: A Sailor Boy’s Voyages to See the World, originally published in 1856. Image found on Wikimedia Commons.