It was Mother Goose Day yesterday -- a cause for celebration in many towns across the country, where parents push brightly decorated baby carriages and strollers and pull wagons loaded with children dressed in their May finery or in costumes based on Mother Goose characters like Baby Bunting, Little Miss Muffet, or Georgie Porgie. But who was Mother Goose, really? And why do we continue to celebrate her memory?
One version of the Mother Goose story is that she was French and from the 8th century A.D. Her name was Berthe, and she was the mother of Charlemagne, the first of the Holy Roman Emperors. She is said to have been a vibrant woman, full of rhymes, songs, and stories, and, because of the larger size of one of her feet, she acquired the rather cruel nickname of "Queen Goosefoot." The name, Mother Goose, first appeared in 1696 as the sub-title to one of the earliest collectors of fairy tales, Charles Perrault's Tales From My Mother Goose. Almost a thousand years after Berthe, the Mother Goose name had made it into popular mythology to describe any older woman who told tales to children. There's even a picture of her -- one of the first that we have -- on the frontispiece of Perrault's book. On the "Archive for the History of Mother Goose," we also learn that another Bertha -- from Norse and Germanic mythology -- was not only the goddess of spinning but also the protector "of the souls of unborn children" and the soother of babies. She, too, is depicted as being surrounded by children, and she, too, has one larger foot, overdeveloped from her many hours pushing on the treadle of her spinning wheeel.
America lays some claim to Mother Goose as well -- where, as one version of history has it, she was Elizabeth Goose, the highly talkative mother-in-law of the printer, Isaiah Thomas, in colonial Boston. He is said to have published a collection of her verses that she was forever reciting around the Thomas household. Yet a copy of that volume of verse has never been found, if it was ever printed at all. But whoever she was and is, and in whatever language she originally spoke and still speaks, we remember her because she has taught us all, in the words of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, to "fall in love with words." And, quite simply, hers are the first lyrics to the song of life that we all learn to sing -- by heart.
Copyright 2006© John Cech
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