Sunday, January 1, 2012

ONCE UPON A NEW YEAR: The Great-Grandfather in the Honey Tree Debacle

New Year’s Day in the home of my childhood was a work day. Mother always took the decorations off the tree and carefully re-packed them on New Year’s Day – no exceptions. Daddy might not start removing the outdoor decorations, but New Year’s Eve was generally the last night that exterior lights were turned on. 

It’s amazing what you remember when you’re just thinking about certain events. I was thinking about helping Mother undecorate the tree, the living room a mess of boxes, tissue paper, and Christmassy stuff, when I remembered about Great-Grandfather in the Honey Tree, a charming children’s book written by Sam and Zoa Swayne of Orofino and published in 1949. As I recall, the story was based on an incident of Swayne family lore, and Zoa, an artist, had illustrated it. In an age when it seemed children’s literature wasn’t innovative, the book enjoyed some national renown, and since the authors were prominent Orofino residents, the book was promoted as special in baby-boomer classrooms at Orofino Elementary. I think I was in the third grade when I borrowed the book from the classroom library prior to Christmas vacation. (In our school, there was no common library. Each classroom had a couple of shelves devoted to age-appropriate books.) In the hubbub of Christmas, I forgot all about the book.

One day in January, my teacher called me to her desk. Did I remember checking out Great-Grandfather in the Honey Tree, she asked. Hmmm – no, not really, I admitted. Well, she said, the card indicated I had checked it out and it was overdue. She was firm in her conviction that I had been the last student to borrow the book. Please check at home for it and return it.

So, at home I mentioned the missing book to Mother. Yes, she had a vague recollection of it. It had been on the coffee table, she thought. We searched the house thoroughly. My mother and my teacher sent messages to one another through me for several days. I remember the look of concern on my teacher’s face. Clearly she wasn’t amused. I admit that I was a dreamer, but my mother was usually on top of things.

My teacher remaining insistent that I had the book, Mother finally said, “Kathy, I just can’t imagine where it could be unless somehow we put it away with the Christmas ornaments.” Even to my child mind, that didn’t seem likely. How could we put a book in an ornament box? How could we not notice? I remember feeling momentarily dashed because, after all, the ornaments had been put away for the next eleven months, and my teacher was applying some pressure about that book. I figured it was too much trouble to get into those boxes again until next Christmas. Oh no, Mother reassured me, she would just have to pull the boxes out and check in them for the book. And sure enough! There it was. In the process of gathering up and putting away sundry holiday items, Great-Grandfather in the Honey Tree had been stashed right in the top of one of the ornament boxes.   
To this day, I’m not sure how we managed to put that book in an ornament box, but I was surely relieved when Mother found it. And so was she. And my teacher's face broke into a smile when I returned the book to school.

If you’re interested in Great-Grandfather in the Honey Tree, copies are available for purchase online. The best price I found was through the ClearwaterHistorical Museum in Orofino. I think you can even read the book online by searching the title. KW

[The card above is from Vance's collection, evidently provided to students by the school. The picture of the Orofino house was taken by brother Chuck in 1984. Unfortunately, the telephone pole is in the way of a good view, but it's still typical of how Orofino looked in winter. And the book image is from the Clearwater Historical Society site.] 


Chris said...

Oh my goodness!! I don't think I've heard this story before. We were such good and conscientious students, I just imagine your horror over this. I know from experience that strange things can happen when the house is topsy-turvy and hurry is the name of the game. At the moment I can't remember if we had the same third grade teacher, but if we did, she could be quite stern!

I'm not certain I ever read that book although I do remember that it was considered "famous" in our town.

Kathy said...

I didn't start out conscientious. My mother created me.

No, I didn't have that stern teacher. I had Mrs. Ruth Snider, and I always thought she was nice. I think she was sweetly firm, however. She was tenacious in getting the return of that book.

I don't know how famous the book was outside of our town, but it was published by Viking Press and on Amazon and Alibris cost per copy was $20.00.

Hallie said...

How is it that Orofino had more than one third grade? How big were the classes?

Kathy said...

That's why they call us baby-boomers. I believe there were three classes of each grade with between 25 and 30 students in each class. Orofino was about 2,500 in those days, I think, but that didn't count Riverside. And we had lots of bussed students.

I heard a report once that in 1953 teachers went to the door to greet the students on the first day of school and discovered a huge first-grade class. On some level they must have known it was going to happen.

Chris said...

I have a copy of our first and second grade group pictures right here on my computer, so I just counted: in our first grade room there are 28 students in the photo, along with Mrs. Bonner and Miss Walrath. In the second grade photo there are 24 with Mrs. Sturgis. I don't know if any students were absent in either picture. And oh, some of the kids are such sad cases! I wonder what ever happened to them?

Kathy said...

You're the teacher among us, Chris, so you would know more about the observation of poverty than I, but it seems like we knew the kids who came from poverty just by looking at them. Dirty and ragged. Seems like we've at least done something about the "dirty and ragged" part.

A friend marvels at my interest in feedsack prints. When I said that people used feedsack prints to make clothing, she responded with, "Yes, and we knew who they were!" --meaning, of course, that in the era that wasn't cool.

Chris said...

Yes, we have done a lot for families. Our school nurse would go into homes and work with Mom, clothing would be provided, and food, too. Those sharing trees we all see at Christmas go a long way towards providing kids with needed items, even as they make us cry when we read the tags.

The school where I taught had showers where kids could get cleaned up, and child welfare would be called. Our counselor used to work for health and welfare, so she really knew her stuff.

Kathy said...

Years ago I heard a former Orofino elementary teacher, Martha Lutes, tell stories of her experiences during the '40s. She mentioned a set of twins whose state of cleanliness left a lot to be desired. She said one day she had had enough. She walked into the principal's office and delivered an ultimatum: "either the 'Smith' twins go -- or I go." I guess that finally got some action.

Chris said...

My biggest fear was lice. When we started to hear the "L" word, we teachers would go bonkers! We'd stare at kids' heads, wonder if they were scratching for real or just thinking, throw any coats, hats, etc., left in the room out in the hall, and generally behave in an irrational manner.

DrJulieAnn @ Modern Retro Woman said...

When I first started teaching, I worked with children of migrant workers in Central California. Coming from a sheltered suburban environment, it was quite an eye opener! Even though my family was poor when I was growing up, we weren't poverty-stricken like these families were/are. I taught 1st Grade and some of these children had already been to 15 schools by the time they reached my classroom!

Many students lived at the migrant worker camp run by the USDA (this camp, by the way, was mentioned in The Grapes of Wrath) so they had reasonable housing for a little while, at least. Many others lived in squalor.

Every Wednesday was lice check day in my classroom. My aid would call the kids up one by one and would check their heads. She would send at least 2-3 students to the nurse every week. I still get scared whenever my head starts feeling itchy!

Even though its been some 25 years since I taught there, those kids still haunt me and influence my political views (and they were a primary reason I became an education professor).

Oh! And I loved this post, Kathy! I'm going to have to follow the links to read the story :)

Kathy said...

Thanks for your input, Dr. J. Until Mike began tax prep and I worked for a state agency overseeing workers comp, we had no idea about that lower rung of society. What I mean is -- no idea that it's right next door, so to speak.

Since I provided only one actual link to Great-Grandfather in the Honey Tree, I checked a little further online. Apparently the text isn't available for online reading, but if you're interested you can probably find it through the library system.

My kids never had lice, but there were rumors of lice from time to time. My neighbor's little boy became a victim, though, and she was mortified. And I've never talked to a single elementary teacher who wasn't horrified at the thought of lice.

DrJulieAnn @ Modern Retro Woman said...

I found the book via and Open Library. My public library is a participant of Open Library so I was able to "borrow" an electronic version of it for two weeks. I haven't had a chance to read it, yet, though.

Kathy said...

Great, Dr. J.! The text will not pose a challenge to your reading skills. I know you'll enjoy it.

Leah said...

Oooh, Kathy. How traumatic to have your teacher be so stern about the book. So funny that it was packed away with the ornaments.

Just the other night on TV, there was a human interest story about a 5 year old girl and overdue books. The librarian in a small town west of Boston sent the police to their house. The child was really frightened. The librarian thought it was the best way to get the books back. What were they thinking? Their answer was that not returning library books is considered theft and is a misdemeanor. Maybe it was because the child's father owed over $100 in overdue fines to the library. The books were returned.