The Pirate’s Widow Who Made Me Feel Less Alone
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
Greetings, my fellow bibliophiles!
Today, I’m very excited to bring you.
Katie writes— where she writes inspiration for the contemplative imagination. Her aim is to find what it means to love God, ourselves, and our neighbour in a complicated world.
Here, she reflects on the children’s book that made her feel less alone as a child and a better parent as an adult — the one and only, Mrs Piggle Wiggle.
I dreaded lying alone at night, trying to fall asleep, when I was little. Leaving the communal coziness of watching TV with my family felt like an unjust punishment. Once I learned to read though, my room became a sanctuary for my growing imagination rather than a prison of boredom.
While there were authors I eventually loved—Shel Silverstein, C.S. Lewis, Judy Blume among many others—I never forgot my first favorite. As much as I’d like to claim that a famous or even obscure piece of literature changed my life, that is just not the case. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald consoled me when I was young, guided me as a new parent, and inspires me as a future grandmother.
Rarely can an adult capture a childlike sense of wonder in words. Even more uncommon is the adult who treats childhood concerns with respect while avoiding the temptation to take herself too seriously. I read Macdonald’s books until the bindings cracked and the pages were stained.
As the middle child between two boys living in a neighborhood full of boys, I often felt out of place. When I read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I was surrounded by friends — if only imaginary ones. MacDonald’s writing style is so conversational that I felt as if she was delivering neighborhood gossip over the fence.
The series is sprinkled with humor and a touch of magical realism, telling stories of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s cures for misbehaving children. It’s easier to refer to her as Mrs. PW because her name is almost too ridiculous to say as a grown person. Anyway, she is an unlikely hero. A childless pirate’s widow living in a postwar neighborhood whose home is eventually overrun each afternoon with school-age children.
The parents in Mrs. PW's neighborhood are clueless about their children. Mrs. PW assures the parents that their children’s problems were normal and could be solved without heavy-handed discipline. She becomes a bridge between the neighborhood children and their parents. A bridge I desperately needed at the time. She sees past the problems to the child’s potential.
In a way, it was good to read about other children’s problems so that my feeling-too-deeply/crying-too-much seemed less severe in comparison. Reading about other children whose emotions felt bigger than a little body could contain helped me feel less alone. I longed to join the gaggle who filled her house every afternoon after school.
By the time I arrived in the world, any childlike wonder the adults in my life had ever experienced had been stolen by bills that needed to be paid. Somehow, Mrs. PW found a way to hold on to hers. She’s unconventional, to say the least. Neither money nor her appearance worry her. She let girls fix her hair as if she were a queen while the boys dug for buried treasure in her backyard.
Reading these stories in the days before “stranger danger” was a term, I was entranced by the possibilities that came from having a magical neighbor. Her sunny disposition could be counted on when my parents were disappointed in me. Her endless well of attention made me feel seen and known in moments when I felt overlooked and unimportant. She inspired me to turn mundane tasks into play with my imagination. The stories, each with a tidy ending, gave me hope that I could do better next time.
The books we read as children form us in ways we may not realize until we revisit their pages.
I introduced my children to Mrs. PW by listening to the stories on long family road trips. Rereading her stories reminded me of what it felt like to be a child. In the first story, she befriends Mary Lou who is in the process of running away from home. Mary Lou pours out her sorrows over freshly baked sugar cookies. They talk about Mary Lou’s frustration with being forced to wash the dinner dishes.
In one conversation Mrs. PW reframes dishwashing, casting Mary Lou as a princess who can only escape the clutches of the wicked witch if the kitchen is perfectly clean. Mary Lou returns home happily. Her parents are shocked when they don’t have to pressure her into doing the dinner dishes.
Hearing Mrs. PW's stories with adult ears, I wondered if it was possible to parent more like Mrs. PW and less like Mary Lou’s mother. It wasn’t as if Mrs. PW ignored the children’s misbehavior, instead, she found creative ways to help them get back on the right track without shame, corporal punishment, or silent treatment.
I knew I needed to create structure and guide my children, but rigidity did not seem to be the foundation for the kind of relationship I hoped to have with my own children. As I listened, I recognized some of my own parenting fears.
Parenting often feels like a game of Whack-A-Mole. One problem recedes as another makes itself known. Over and over again, Mrs. PW assured the parents to have patience with the growing-up process. She normalized the problems so that the parents felt less alone. This reassurance was just what I needed in the early days when it felt like every decision I made would permanently affect my children.
Reading these stories again, I realize many of the dated details in McDonald’s stories are questionable. Alarm bells immediately ring with the idea of a child entering a stranger’s home to eat sugar cookies. It is also a little suspect to cast the mother as the witch in the fairy tale scenario. Although the stories show their age with the casual mention of corporal punishment and stereotypical gender roles, they contain some timeless truths. So, I did a little debrief after each story to point out some of the details that did not align with our current understanding of how to be a good human.
Mrs. PW's solutions gave the children agency to solve their own problems. While she sometimes had the help of a magic potion or an unusual animal, I imagined helping my own children learn to find their own solutions, minus the talking parrot. Eventually, they both learned to clean up after themselves, share, and get along with others.
No one wants to be their own age anymore. Adults spend so much time seeking the fountain of youth, while children do all they can to accelerate their own growing up. We are never told how old Mrs. PW is, but I guess that I am now closing in on her age. My children are grown but not quite married. It’s good to see that Mrs. PW did she resist growing older, but never saw the need to act her age.
Mrs. PW shows us what it looks like to embrace whatever age we are rather than directing our energy toward shape-shifting into an alternate life. She focuses on the child in front of her rather than her own appearance. She would not be considered a classical beauty with a hump on her back that she claims is a “big lump of magic”. The children were “very envious of the hump, because besides being magic, it [was] such a convenient fastening place for wings.”
Children need wise adults to help them grow up and overcome their more narcissistic tendencies. At the same time, adults need children to help them reclaim their connection with the invisible wonder that is sprinkled everywhere. We can conspire together against the tyranny of ageism.
I’m looking forward to the possibility of becoming a grandmother, but I’m not one yet. I can’t wait to have fresh cookies for hungry mouths, dress-up clothes for anyone ready to try on a new persona, and a yard full of buried treasure itching to be discovered.
After a day when life feels a little out of control, I still love to climb into a world where anything is possible, even for a little girl. A good story is a refuge, a vehicle to escape the constraints of age, responsibility, bank accounts, etc. Mrs. PW opens a portal of possibility to see that maybe life is better if we can share, listen to others, and clean up after ourselves.
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