I had a letter from my daughter Mary in Geneva the other day saying that Helen's first word was ''bumble bee'' or at any rate it seems that was what she was trying to say. It made me think of something I have wondered about a long time, and about Grace Brookin who married John Lang, ''Mariner,'' of Portsmouth, N.H., in 1695. (He is supposed to have come from Devonshire, England.)
There is quite a time gap between Grace and Helen; let's see, that's about 286 years if I figure it right. And yet I can't help wondering if the two aren't connected by that bumble bee; those two and a lot of others. It comes to me now and then, idly wondering, particularly when there is a new infant in the family and somebody has to go through the old business of making acquaintance, and smiling and laughing and counting its toes. You have to say something to an infant, don't you? Talking about the income tax is no good! And so you fall into a pattern, repeating some Mother Goose nonsense to see if you can catch a smile. Your mother did the same thing with you.
The conventional approach is, of course, ''This little pig went to market.'' You look at your subject meaningfully and take the large toe between your thumb and forefinger and explain that it went to market. The infant, of course, doesn't know what ''going to market'' means but that is all right, the important thing is that you have got the attention of your audience and there are four more toes to come and you are working down consecutively from the top.
''This little pig went to market;
''This little pig stayed home;
''This little pig had roast beef;
''This little pig had none;''
(And then the climax)
''And this little pig cried 'Wee-wee-wee' all the way home!''
There is drama, you see, and regular progression and it works up to a recognizable climax. If you can't get a gurgle of delight out of your captive audience then there is something the matter with your delivery or your rapport.
The point I am making is that in the Lang family, somewhere along the way from Portsmouth, England, (or long maybe before that) they had another rhyme. Susie Lang, my mother, used it on Alan and me. In later life I have seen her bend over many a curious infant, take a pink fat toe, and go through the mystery. Where the words come from I haven't the foggiest notion. They are passed down from mother to child and so far as I know have leaped the Atlantic. Lieut. Thomas Lang (1741) of Greenland, N.H., had 20 children (three wives) and I assume the toe-counting patter was used for each. Here are the mysterious words (but a supplementary point is that the start is from the littlest toe, the ''pinkie,'' and it works up to the big toe in the natural way, reaching its finale in an orderly progression of the dramatic unities, with the climatic denouement).
All right then, ready?
''Little Sickey Wee;
''Little Penny Rue;
''Little Rue Whistle;
''Little Sarah Hostle; and -
''GREAT BIG TOM - BOM - BUMBLE BEE!''
See what I mean about ''bumble bee''? Helen is already trying to say it. She has a feeling for drama. So, I guess, did Hannah Harvey (daughter of Pike Hilton Harvey of Nottingham, N.H., who married Benjamin Franklin Lang, my grandfather). She went through the game with infant Susie. So they all did. The cabalistic rune has been handed down for a couple of centuries, apparently, and I see no reason why it should ever end.
I confess I didn't mean to go into it at this length when I started although I have always wondered about the folk rhyme, or whatever it is, and hoped that some scholar would write a book about it. Now Helen has set me off again. As to its literary superiority over ''This little pig'' I think it hardly needs argument. Why pick on that abused ''little pig'' who didn't go to market, and who didn't get roast beef, and who cried all the way home? What class favoritism! Do you want to make your child a Socialist? And it starts with the biggest toe and works down to the smallest one in an evident anticlimax. . .
Now Helen's version has verve and dispatch. It starts off with a ''wee'' which hints at humble beginnings and Scotch derivation (which is where the Langs come from). Each name leads to the next by alliteration and etymology until you have that climax with the bumble bee. It leaves the characters sharply differentiated and the audience surprised and breathless. I have repeated it about a million times, I guess, and it never fails. Someday, maybe, Helen will try it on somebody else.