Wherefore art thou Nuh-uh?

A few days ago Mara asked me to tell her a story. We used to tell her a story every single night at bedtime after reading and after turning out the light, and there were very few repeats, although when we started reading her The Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books and the Oz books and other chapter books this practice of making up stories for her ceased. Now she asks me to tell her a story at all times of the day, while I’m rushing around preparing to go to work and when we sit down to eat.

For the last, oh, ten months I have been too exhausted to enjoy the effort it takes to craft a story in my head from scratch, and if truth be told many of my stories (I will not say Angela’s) Mara will recognize later in life when she reads cliassic literature such as Tolkien’s Smith of Wootten Major (the beautiful and haunting companion story to the lighthearted Farmer Giles of Ham) or listens to, say, The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare”. 

Being too tired to make up a really clever yarn, and riffing on the Little Red Hen, a story whose denouement had been troubling me lately and which I happened to be mulling over in my mind, I told this tale:

“Nuh-uh and Uh-uh and Uh-Huh were three siblings who decided to walk into town…”

“Was that their names?” interrupted Mara.

“Yes, those were their names. So they set out toward town, and on the way they came to the house of Mr. McGillicuddy, who was on his roof cleaning his gutters but couldn’t get down because his ladder had fallen down into the yard. He called to the children and asked Nuh-uh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’

“And Nuh-uh said ‘nuh-uh’.

“So Mr. McGillicuddy asked Uh-uh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’  

“And Uh-uh said ‘uh-uh’.

“So then Mr. M–“

My wife interrupted. “What kind of names are those? And why would they just say their own names?” Angela demanded with what I would call a sneer except that it was lighthearted and not intended to injure, so let’s call it a snort.

I lifted my eyebrows in wonderment. “Do you object,” I queried, “to something about this story that I’m making up out of my own head…and did I mention that it’s my story?”

“Well it just seems goofy.” She spilled another handful of oatie-os onto Millie’s tray. Millie began picking them up carefully and putting them into her mouth and sucking on them.

I proceeded with the story, which went something like this:

“So then Mr. McGillicuddy asked Uh-huh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’

“And Uh-huh said ‘uh-huh’ and he went over and lifted the ladder.”

“She went over,” said Mara. “Not he.”

“Right,” said I, adjusting to the picture that I now saw in Mara’s mind of perhaps a girl her own age in what she had already intuited would be the starring role. “She.

“So they walked along and came to another house, where an old woman in a wheelchair was on her porch and was trying to get back into her house but needed help with the front door. She called to the children and asked Nuh-uh, ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’

“And Nuh-uh said ‘nuh-uh’.

“So the old woman asked Uh-uh, ‘ ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’

“And Uh-uh said ‘uh-uh’.

“So then she asked Uh-Huh,  ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’

“And Uh-huh said ‘uh-huh’, and she went and opened the door for her.

“So finally they came into town, and as they were walking along the street they were arrested –“ (here I paused for a tense moment and lifted my nose slightly) “by the smell of fresh-baked apple pie. And the three children followed the wonderful aroma into the bakery, where the baker was just pulling a pie out of the oven and setting it on the counter to cool.

“Said Nuh-uh to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’

“And the baker looked up and, recognizing the children, said ‘Nuh-uh!’ And so Nuh-uh didn’t get any pie.

“And then Uh-uh said to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’

“And the baker said ‘Uh-uh!’ And so Uh-uh didn’t get any pie either.

“Then Uh-huh said to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’

“And the baker said ‘Uh-huh!’ and gave Uh-huh a big piece of apple pie.”

That was the end of the story. Since I often have no idea how they will end (like my blog posts) I was rather pleased that this particular story seemed to finish with a nice sharp crack. Mara went on with her dinner, which is not to say she didn’t enjoy the story, but she takes these things for granted sometimes. Angela was still shaking her head as though she were trying to figure out how to break it to her Facebook crowd that she had married a buffoon.

Mara asked for the story again the next night at dinner, and I told it again. Again Angela took me to task about why each of the characters just said their own name, and expressed disapproval with her entire lovely face.

A storyteller in 1911 holds her audience spellbound. This image comes from the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA) and is licenced through Creative Commons.

Tonight Mara asked for the story again. This time, although I gave the old lady the name of Mrs. Grainsworthy, I left the man on the roof unnamed, so Mara interjected that his name was Dickens, and also said the reason the children were going to town was to see their cousin Kayla. (These details are enormously helpful.)

Angela aired her complaint afresh, as though the story should make more logical sense somehow, but I tendered my opinion that Mara, for whom the tale was made, did not seem to suffer from a similar inability to suspend disbelief. In fact when I asked Mara to explain to Mommy why the children just said their names, Mara said that maybe they were just saying their names and those people thought they were answering them. I thought this explanation represents a pretty fatalistic and bleak view of the world, and I don’t think Mara really thinks this when she hears the story, but for Mara, hearing a story and theorizing about its dramaturgical devices are activities with different goals. She hears the story apart from any internal editor telling her that things have to make logical sense. It makes poetical sense to her. It ends as it should. And why wouldn’t there be three siblings so named? Mara is untroubled. 

Yet my true love chafes. I have made up hundreds of stories for Mara on the spot — as has Angela — some silly, some beautiful, some didactic, some a little spooky, but none of them have ever met with this kind of critical panning by my co-author. 

She suggested I blog about it. Maybe you all can explain it to her. Emerson-like, I refuse to defend myself (that is, like Emerson I write an essay defending myself instead). But I think there are at least several ways to understand the story, which is why I think it’s destined to become a family classic.

Your turn. What do you make of it? There are no wrong answers.


16 Responses to “Wherefore art thou Nuh-uh?”

  1. 1 Angela May 3, 2011 at 22:21

    Oh no! A family classic? HELP!!!!!!

  2. 2 Angela May 3, 2011 at 22:22

    Or wait a minute, I should have said NUH – UH!!!!

  3. 4 Psh Nah May 4, 2011 at 03:17

    I think this is a very wise tale, which has shed some light on my inability to make friends. Please do not change a word of it. Especially the names. Thank you.

  4. 6 Janet May 4, 2011 at 06:26

    I’m tripping over those names so I have to go back and figure out the story. When we were in Bangladesh and the sons were around the ages of 11, 10, and 8, my husband used to make up stories at the dinner table – these stories had us in gales of laughter and usually had no conclusion because we were laughing so hard. I wish I had written some of them down. They involved characters like Mr. Ho and Mr. Hing or some such names.

    • 7 Matt May 4, 2011 at 08:53

      My spelling of the names might be off. But I’m hearing that you didn’t quibble with your husband about his storylines (are you listening, Angela? “gales of laughter”). Sounds like you just rolled with it. I wonder if your sons would remember any of those tales?

  5. 13 kiwidutch May 5, 2011 at 02:05

    For Angela, – The object of a story built entirely from the imagination is to insert as many silly nonsensical bits as possible, rest assured kids are totally capable of complete suspension of logic.
    The sillier the better, as giggles are often the guaranteed by-products from both the speaker and the listeners.
    Extra parenting points given if you have to rush to the little room before you accidentally pee yourself laughing of if another adult listening in, snorts a beverage though their nose.

    For Matt, – It’s a parents primary mission to come up with the silliest story possible, In our house the kids come up with several items/persons each and the story has to be built completely around those no matter how insanely you have to twist the story to make them fit.
    So, Yes, a windmill, fairy, horse, submarine and a helicopter and a robber do make for a weird storyline team.

    For Mara and Millie, – try and find the most illogical things to put into a story, people, places, items. (don’t worry…You are Kids, you are good at this already) Place your ideas before Mama and Papa and test/strain/stretch their storytelling skills.
    Sit back, laugh until your sides hurt, enjoy and remember fondly.

    • 14 Matt May 5, 2011 at 08:49

      I’m sitting here pondering whether or not your admonition to my daughters to supply widely divergent story components is something I want to encourage. On the one hand, sometimes the brain is so empty that anything to strike the match of storytelling to would be useful tinder. On t’other, I’m not sure I need any more difficulty in weaving plot lines into a serviceable story.

  6. 15 Jana May 5, 2011 at 21:19

    Storytelling is an extraordinary gift that I don’t possess. Perhaps this is why I’m sometimes a possessed story gatherer! (This never occured to me until I pondered your post). How wonderful your children are being raised by two storytellers! I loved your story as-is.

    • 16 Matt May 5, 2011 at 22:24

      Thank you Jana. I’m looking forward to the day when Mara (and in her turn Emilia) will tell ME stories. Mara has the capacity; sometimes I hear her making up very involved scenarios with her dolls.

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