I don’t know if you are watching All Creatures Great and Small on Masterpiece Theater on PBS these Sunday nights, but if you’re not, you are missing something wonderful.
All Creatures Great and Small is a collection of stories told by veterinarian James Herriot. (Herriot is his pen name, actually — James Alfred White was his real name.) His stories of caring for the animals in Yorkshire, Britain, are filled with gentle wisdom, profound moments, and wonderful characters (human and not.)
This latest rendition of the show (there have been many over the last 50 years) came out in Britain last spring and was a runaway pandemic hit. We in the U.S. get it now. Tis balm for the soul, I’m telling you.
As NBCnews.com put it: [T]he real reason this show is destined to be a hit all over again is the gentleness of its premise, and the smallness of its dramas. These are not stories that span continents or generations. Tension is found in two cats accidentally put back in the wrong cages, or cows suffering from milk fever.
Sweet relief — give me more Gentleness of Premise and Smallness of Drama, I say! Beautiful landscapes, wonderful accents, great characters, and grace-filled kindness fill these stories. The Masterpiece production is gorgeous and it has sent me back to the stories themselves.
I have a vivid memory of reading James Herriot stories to #1 Son. A severe asthmatic, #1 Son’s early years featured several frightening respiratory episodes. He was hospitalized a couple of times and kept out of the hospital several more times by a dedicated doctor willing to give us emergency treatment in her office, letting us hang out until he was stable.
Those were years in which I carried a “storybook” in my purse/bag — something longer than a traditional picture book, a “long book” as #1 Son called it, with several stories housed in separate chapters. Pippi Longstocking, Narnia, Pooh, and the like. I carried such books just in case…just in case we suddenly found ourselves in the doctor’s office all day or the emergency room.
The year he was in kindergarten #1 Son left for school one afternoon at 12:30 with a runny nose — spring allergies — and when he arrived home on the bus less than three hours later I had to carry him inside and was faced with the decision of whether to call an ambulance or somehow get him to the hospital on my own — quickly. I opted for the latter and still sometimes wonder if I would make that same decision if I had to do it over again.
He was admitted to the hospital that time, “a very sick boy” the ER doctor said so ominously I thought my heart stopped. He wore a mask that delivered oxygen and medication 24⁄7. The steroids that normally wired him when they kicked in didn’t — he was so sick. He lay in the hospital bed with his eyes closed, the hum of the nebulizer the only sound in the room. My husband and I shuffled his baby sister around with grandparent help and took turns staying with him.
One morning I was there with him and in an effort to have some sound that was not medical I began reading the “long book” in my bag: James Herriot’s Treasury for Children.
I think it may be the very best book I could’ve read during that frightening time. Our copy has beautiful illustrations, but #1 Son was too sick to view them. I lay in the bed with him and read aloud these sweet stories of animals and their people. We had/have no pets — animal dander being one of the biggest asthma triggers for three in our family. But our kids always loved stories of animals.
But mostly I read those stories in the hospital for me, if I’m honest. My baby was asleep or too sick to pay attention. But those stories of such gentle premise, such small drama, helped my Mama-heart beat a bit steadier, a little slower, more sure. I could breathe easier while I read them and it gave me hope his breath would come easier soon. So I read over the sound of the nebulizer until I was hoarse.
When the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small started a couple of weeks ago, I texted #1 Son, a healthy, strapping young man whose asthma seldom bothers anymore, and asked if he remembered reading the Herriot stories. He did not — he remembers little of that hospitalization and I don’t think we read them again, for whatever reason. But as the opening credits rolled, my eyes filled with tears and my heart was full of gratitude for Dr. “Herriot” and his stories.
If you find yourself in need of simple comfort, some delight and beauty delivered with small drama and generous kindness, do check out All Creatures Great and Small. Perfect for these ongoing pandemic days….