I felt an inordinate glee one day in 1999 discovering that Homer Groening, the father of Matt who creates the hugely successful cartoon series The Simpsons, was born in Main Centre, Sask. This hamlet is still on the map today, with five sturdy souls comprising its population.
Then to learn further that Homer’s family belonged to the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, this only heightened my joy, for I too had been reared in the KMB, a tiny denomination of just 26 churches worldwide which had broken from another Mennonite group in the Crimea in 1869. And it happens that my own church, Salem, was situated in a district named Springfield, halfway between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers.
All this delighted me back then, and still does today. But why?
I think it has something to do with the biblical parable of the mustard seed. In the familiar (to me) idiom of the Authorized King James Bible, the little kernel is described as “the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.”
Homer Groening had moved to Portland, Oregon, where he married Margaret Wiggum. I was six years old at the time Matt was born, and while he was growing into the huge tree he was to become, I moved to southern Manitoba where I did some growing up myself, and for a time was teaching psychology classes at a Bible college to some of Matt’s relatives in that area. All the down-home names of the Simpson characters — Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie, Abe, Bart (said to be an intentional misspelling of brat) — come from Matt’s own family, while Chief Police Wiggum bears his mother’s maiden name. And even if Matt himself is not aware of it, his great-grandfather preacher Abram certainly would have known that in the Bible a homer is a Hebrew unit of capacity, equal to about 10 bushels or 100 gallons.
Who’d have guessed that a genuine court jester like Matthew Abram Groening would rise from these prairie roots? Countless flocks of birds roosting in his great tree, ten thousand gallons in his homer — the longest-running TV series, billions of T-shirts sold, every week new political and cultural satire coming to bite us in the rump, with religion a more frequent theme in The Simpsons than in any other series. “Daut’s oba wundawaut,” his Manitoba kin or the folks in Main Centre might say, “That’s but a wonderwhat.”
In 1999 the Witchita Eagle summed it up by calling The Simpsons “quintessentially weak, good-hearted sinners who rely on their faith — but only when absolutely necessary.” Very much like the rest of us, selfish, hopeful, sometimes funny without knowing it, and Matt himself proving our perennial need for the Office of the Court Jester. To his critics, he has only this to say: “If you don’t want to have a brat like Bart, don’t behave like Homer.”
In Brazil, there is a pigeon-sized creature called a bell-bird. It puffs itself up into a big ball, opens its beak, and with a shrill sound of DONG! returns to its normal size. Over and over again. I suppose this is a parable of its own, for isn’t the world as small as it’s large? Homer from Main Centre, Lloyd from Springfield, Matthew Abram from Portland, Ding-dong, here we go again.
So please keep on pulling our noses, Matt, and make us laugh. It’s powerful good medicine.
(And here’s a wave to the good people of Main Centre, Saskatchewan, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2xerYxMMqU)
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors' writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.