On this day in 1907 Kenneth Grahame wrote the first of a series of letters to his son, Alastair,
describing the Toad, Rat, Mole and Badger adventures that eventually became The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame had been inventing such bedtime stories for several years and the letter, occasioned by his being separated from Alastair on his seventh birthday, picks up what seems to be a continuing tale:
"Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a horrid low trick of his."
Alastair was an only child, born blind in one eye and with a squint in the other.
He was plagued by health problems throughout his short life. Alastair eventually committed suicide on a railway track
while an undergraduate at Oxford University, two days before his 20th birthday on 7 May 1920.
Out of respect for Kenneth Grahame, Alastair's demise was recorded as an accidental death.
Mother once told me that the folly of most two-leggeds was that they wanted "happy endings"
when the best one could hope for was the appreciating of the happy moments in between the dawning of the light and the dying of it.
"Can't we have both, Mama?," I remember asking, coughing from double pneumonia.
She ruffled my hair and smiled sadly, "Perhaps you will be the exception, Little One. I will pray so."
Perhaps Alastair's suicide was brought on by his handicap and his maladjustment to an adult world that seemed, to him as to Rat, more than adventure:
"And beyond the Wild Wood again?" [Mole] asked: "Where it's all blue and dim, and one sees what may be hills or perhaps they mayn't, and something like the smoke of towns, or is it only cloud-drift?"
"Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,'" said the Rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all."
Grahame himself is described as one who pined for but never took the Open Road,
as an escape from his banking career and a loveless marriage.
When he offered THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS to his publisher he described it as a book "of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides, free of problems,
clear of the clash of sex, of life as it might fairly be supposed to be regarded by some of the wise, small things 'that glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck."
My own THE BEAR WITH 2 SHADOWS grew from my own childhood tales told to me by Mother
as she hugged me as I shivered and coughed from double pneumonia. We were iced in our basement apartment in Detroit by one of the worst ice storms in remembrance.
Phones down. Just new in town. All alone.
So Mother merged bits of myth and legend she remembered from both sides of her bloodline : Lakota and Celtic.
She was sure I would die, and she wanted my last moments to be filled, not with fear and dread, but with awe, wonder, and magic.
She told of The Turquoise Woman, whose touch was icy but whose heart was warm. My shivers were from her embrace.
And that hulking shadow at the foot of my bed? Why, that was Hibbs, the bear with two shadows, protector of all hurting children.
He was there for me.
And a world of wonder and magic opened up in my feverish mind, birthing a happy moment for my mother : despite the odds, I grew better. I lived.
Have you heard about the bear? He saved a little boy once. A bit of that little boy still lives ... in my heart.
AS THE HOLIDAY SEASON APPROACHES...
1 hour ago