What Could Go Wrong?

Certain phrases such as, “Where’s the beef?” leap into the national language. Other phrases glide into the shared language of smaller groups. When my children were younger, we read many books aloud. This lasted way beyond the years when the children became fluent readers. I have fond memories of taking turns reading Thomas Hardy’s  The Mayor of Casterbridge with my then sixteen-year-old son.

One book we enjoyed as a family was a memoir written by a man recalling his late 1800s childhood. (I don’t remember the title but if anyone does, please let me know.) He and his siblings were raised in Maine by their grandfather, and our favorite chapter concerned a day when the grandfather was away from home. The children decided to bake tarts. To add a note of suspense and excitement, they doctored one tart with all sorts of less than tasty flavorings. Once baked, each child would pick a tart and they would bite into them at the same time. Most of the faces would be wreathed in smiles–while one child would grimace and race for a glass of water. The lone, unfortunate tart was known as the “Jonah,” named for the prophet who brought storm conditions to the ship he boarded.

As the tarts finished baking and anticipation grew, the children heard a knock at the door. There stood an elderly man who introduced himself as their grandfather’s friend. Returning home after a number of years’ absence, he stopped by for fellowship. After explaining the grandfather’s absence, they invited him in and offered a drink. Just then, the tarts were ready and the guest exclaimed, “Oh, it has been so long since I’ve smelled such wonderful pies!”

The children were trapped. Good manners demanded that they invite their guest to join them. What was meant as a fun game had turned into a potential nightmare! Can you imagine the tension as they sat around the table and passed the tray? As each family member bit into a tart, so did their guest. As fortune would have it, he turned red and started coughing as the Jonah effect took hold.

Once all was calm, the children explained what had happened and braced for a stern lecture. To their great relief, the guest burst out laughing. As he headed out, the good-natured man asked them to tell their grandfather that Mr. Hannibal Hamlin sent regards.

That night, the children greeted their grandfather with the message of his friend’s visit, omitting the details which might earn them a punishment. On subsequent visits, Mr. Hamlin shared their reticence.

Just how momentous the day had been was something the children did not understand until years later. Hannibal Hamlin had indeed been away from home for years, serving as Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president during his first term of office. He was returning from that position, having relinquished the title to Andrew Johnson, who shortly thereafter became president following Lincoln’s assassination.

Since reading that book, the phrase, “Jonah tart” serves as a shorthand in our family. Dozens of other phrases from shared books and movies occupy a similar place. This is by no means the only benefit of having family read-aloud time, but it is one that will linger long after the children are grown.

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