Migration in a handbasket

Lucy Locket

Lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Nothing in it
Nothing in it
But the binding round it

It's a bad sign when two people ask me the same day about the meaning of "to hell in a handbasket." It could be further evidence of the impending apocalypse, but then again it might just be clutchless artisan-roasted beans jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Years ago a coworker convinced me a "handbasket" was the woven repository of thieves' hands chopped off as punishment on a precinct-by-precinct judgment day. Such a visual image! Sort of like the bucket of slippery bluegills, sunfish, and bullheads after a nice day fishing the dredged lakes near Lincoln, but with heavier Biblical overtones.

Best as I can find, the expression "to hell in a handbasket" is just over a century old, and it's closely akin to "going to heaven in a wheelbarrow". A "handbasket" is just a basket with a handle. The term is similar to "handbag," and of the same vintage. Going to either hell or heaven in a handbasket just meant getting there rapidly, portably, and easily.

My apocryphal ancestor, "The Unknown Liska", allegedly walked from the Ukraine to Bohemia with a wheelbarrow. He probably didn't think the trip was rapid or easy. Some versions of this family tale have him pushing his portable mother in the wheelbarrow, and she is clutching her pocketbook. I can see her now, with her nylons sliding down in rolls around her ankles (and her hair done up on pink rollers!).

Nobody calls their purse a handbag now. My grandma used to call her purse a "pocketbook". She had some really groovy crocheted and beaded drawstring bags. These days the term "pocketbook" usually refers to your [always limited] financial resources as in "prices to fit your pocketbook".

A-tisket a-tasket

A green and yellow basket

I wrote a letter to my love

And on the way I dropped it

I dropped it, I dropped it

Yes, on the way I dropped it

A little girlie picked it up

And took it to the market

--obviously that little girl was the aforementioned Kitty Fisher. An apoplectic apocalyptic moment came when my second-graders told me about their on-line chat room. YIKES!

During preschool group time I read the kids a Joanne Ryder book and talked about wild birds flying south for the winter. No, the kids insisted, they fly Southwest. Wanna get away?

© 2008 Nancy L. Ruder

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