My son has a thing about Scary Old Ladies. We don’t know how this came about – there’s no particular experience here with octogenarian harpies or witchy babysitters, not even a screechy old fortune teller that I can recollect – but if he wakes in the night and cannot restore himself, then we have a pretty good idea of what was inhabiting his dreams. As such, I was a initially a little reluctant about the appearance of Linda Smith’s and Marla Frazee’s moodily conjured Mrs. Biddlebox – was this another Halloween trinket? Or one of those books where a crotchety old yeller ends up teaching the neighborhood children lessons of tolerance and mutual respect? Either way, a dubious proposition.
It turns out there are no innocents here for Mrs. Biddlebox to inflict herself upon, only a goose you kind of worry about in the opening pages, and a couple of smaller birdies who clear out pretty fast when Mrs. Biddlebox reveals her intentions. These involve the sky, the fog, the grubby lawn, and anything else presumed to have contributed to her intractable foul mood (it’s surprising the television – which she and the goose are seen watching first thing in the morning – does not merit consideration).
A stew pot is where all of this is headed, and an oven, though I’m not sure the finished product is anywhere as important as the motivation. In fact it’s easy to imagine how the earliest chefs were driven by nothing so overpowering as outrage – to whip and whisk and beat and dredge and pound and sear – at being presented with some of the impossible items those hunter-gatherers were idiotically bringing back to the cave.
Call it what you will – crabby or cantankerous, tetchy, testy or plain bad-tempered – yet I think we are in the habit of too readily congratulating one another for our temperamental restraint, as though the older we get we should naturally find more with which to be satisfied, or anyway better methods for concealing our disappointment. Does anyone ever worry that we spend a heck of a lot more time advising our children to calm down than amp up? We’re not always charming when we’re angry, and not always elegant, and often self-destructive but, reader, isn’t it occasionally gripping and inspirational and even a little reassuring to think there are circumstances around which merit our righteous frenzies?
Practical or not. I mean, poor old Mrs. Biddlebox lives in a house on a hill that looks like somewhere Norman Bates is checking up on, and tomorrow morning when she wakes there will surely be “grumblies in her belly” again, and “creakies in her chair,” and Regis and Kelly on the tube, all in all another “despicable bad day” to try to bully into submission. She’ll have to be creative – that cake from today would probably give her a heart attack soon enough, unless she mixes up the ingredients a little, or unless she finds somewhere to share it.