Fly Away Home

Fairy tales and superstitions come down to us from the past like hearsay. “They say Mother Goose used to sing this to her grandchildren: ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home …'”

Who the heck is this Mother Goose? And why are her stories and rhymes so apocalyptic? “Your house is on fire and your children … .” Sheesh.

For the life of me, I do not remember seeing or hearing that rhyme for the first time, so in looking at the variations to the “Ladybug, Ladybug” rhyme, I do not recognize which one I grew up with. There are a lot of variations, usually naming which one of the ladybug’s children remain to be rescued. I think I remember something like “Your children are home” or “Your children are alone.” One of those. My sister was the jump-rope artiste, so perhaps she remembers. That is the point to mythology of all stripes: myths, folk tales, songs are supposed to sound like something you have already heard, knew about already, from the very first time. Even when a folk tale is brand new, it is essential that it be crafted to sound “old fashioned.” Before a child can question things and do something independent like express nervousness about the Labybug character in a Mother Goose rhyme and her tragically lost house and endangered kin, he or she is accustomed to chanting one or two lines about terrible violence while setting free-slash-flinging away a real live ladybug. For good luck or something. That part seems universal, well, global.

In referring to members of the beetle family Coccinellidae as “ladybugs,” I am betraying my origins in upstate New York. In much of the world, the insects are called “ladybirds,” but not here. New York State’s state insect is a specific species of ladybug, or more properly, lady beetle, Coccinella novemnotata, or the nine-spotted ladybird/bug/beetle. Not all fifty states have state insect-mascots, forty-five do; seven states have the seven-spotted ladybug as their state insect, but only New York has the nine-spotted variety, and from 1982 until recently, not one of these red-and-black beetles had been seen in the state. The seven-spotted variety is far more common and can be found throughout the northern hemisphere.

Finding the real Mother Goose has been almost as elusive as seeing a live nine-spotted lady beetle on the New York State Thruway. Mother Goose is a mythological character herself, as essential to the stories as any character in them. Myths require an origin in the distant past and yet a close-by figure who is the teller of the tales; a close-by but just out of reach figure. Someone’s grandma, say.

Late in his career, Charles Perrault, a 17th Century French writer, put together a volume of children’s stories and subtitled it “Tales from My Mother Goose.” The full title in French is “Histoires ou contes du temps passé ou Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye.” “Tales from Times Past, or, Stories from My Mother Goose.” He rewrote stories that had probably been around for decades if not centuries, like Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots, but with so many details that he made them his own, or, Mother Goose’s own, from then until now. (When you are telling the story of Sleeping Beauty, you are telling Perrault’s memorable version.) Whether or not he was the first to come up with the name “Mother Goose” is up for conjecture, as the idea of the name Mother Goose appears to have been common. Not long after his successful volume, there were translations of his stories into English, and at around the same time, the mid-1700s, “Mother Goose” became a sort-of brand name in England and America for fairy tales.

By the mid-1800s, it was believed by Bostonians that the “original Mother Goose” was a woman named Mary Goose who died in 1690 and is buried in the famous Granary Cemetery in that great city. Perhaps there was a Goose family grandmother in Boston who told old-fashioned fairy tales.

In general terms, the members of the family Coccinellidae are happily useful and busy insects. That is a fairy tale right there. In our anthropomorphic perspective, we give insects psychologies, and view ladybugs as seeming to be closer to “self-actualized” on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than many others. Most of them spend their time eating even smaller insects that infest crops, and their colorful, self-protective red-and-black pattern discourages predators from eating them, which can further help keep things in balance. Thus, culturally, ladybugs/birds/beetles are viewed with tolerance and even affection, which in the world of superstition is twisted into “it is bad luck to kill one, so just gently shoo them away.”

But in whose dark heart did this rather benign superstition become transformed into shooing a ladybug away because the insect’s “house is on fire”?

“Jockey Full Of Bourbon”—Tom Waits, Raindogs (1985)
Edna Million in a drop dead suit
Dutch pink pink on a downtown train
Two dollar pistol but the gun won’t shoot
I’m in the corner in the pouring rain
16 men on a deadman’s chest
And I’ve been drinking from a broken cup
2 pairs of pants and a mother vest
I’m full of bourbon; I can’t stand up.

Hey little bird, fly away home
Your house is on fire; your children are alone
Hey little bird, fly away home
Your house is on fire; your children are alone

Schiffer broke a bottle on Morgan’s head
And I’ve been stepping on the devil’s tail
Across the stripes of full moon’s head
Through the bars of a Cuban jail
Bloody fingers on a purple knife
A flamingo drinking from a cocktail glass
I’m on the lawn with someone else’s wife
Come admire the view from up on top of the mast

[Repeat Chorus]
Yellow sheets in Hong Kong bed
Stazybo horn and a Singerland ride
To the carnival is what she said
A hundred dollars makes it dark inside.

* * * *
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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 29 asks, “Your home is on fire. Grab five items (assume all people and animals are safe). What did you grab?”


  1. nonsmokingladybug · January 29, 2015

    Oh I love ya…I love Tom Waits…my favorit song “Sea of Love” is even on my own web page…I think 🙂 good as always. BTW I am not flying away LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  2. livingonchi · January 29, 2015

    Your articles are so entertaining, educational and well-written! Reading your blog is like reading the New Yorker. I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Catnip · January 29, 2015


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: What I need to survive… | The Hempstead Man
  5. wscottling · January 29, 2015

    I too went in search of Mother Goose once upon a time. But that was before the internet. Have you ever read the book “Heavy Words Lightly Thrown”? It’s an interesting book on the same subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · January 29, 2015

      I don’t, but I love the title. Thank you for the recommendation.


  6. Teresa Oh · January 30, 2015

    Now I will not look at a ladybug/beetle/bird the same way again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. abodyofhope · January 30, 2015

    All of the connections you make, from lady bugs to Mother Goose to Tom Waits is a ride I very much enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. rogershipp · January 31, 2015

    I had never heard of a ‘house on fire’ nursery rhyme. My Mother Goose was apparently more G Rated? Enjoyed it… as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Ladybug, Ladybug | The Gad About Town

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