This story is by Pat Hare and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The Stuff of Fairy Tales (formerly Making-Believe (First Draft))
Looking back fifty plus years, I believe the ill winds of World War II tossed me and my parents around like rag dolls. Whenever I asked why we had to move again, Mother would say, “Your father’s job is defense work. It’s our livelihood. And so that we can be a family, we follow him.”
In my ten-year-old eyes, that made Daddy a hero. I was proud of him, and I never met another kid whose father had that same occupation.
Our life was rich. Not in the monetary way, but jam-packed with adventure: My daddy taught me how to shoot a rifle. I learned how to have make-believe playmates on our nearby school amphitheater: Dancing, acting, talking to famous people. Turtles and frogs were my favorite playmates.Using my mother’s fingernail polish, I painted names like “Sunshine” and “Boo” on the shell of every turtle I met. Even changing schools several times a year only fanned the flames of my search for discovery.
That part, changing schools, was difficult at times. Sometimes I had to work hard, trying to catch up with a class studying a different history or a different math. Not as concerned about making friends as other girls, for some reason I made them easily. Today, I’d say it was because I had a mystique due to our travels.
During what we called “good times,” we lived in large hotels in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Kingsport, Tennessee; and even the magical New York City. These were my home towns. Whenever I mentioned that last one, everyone’s eyes grew big.
Those days, when I walked out of our door, I was watched over by uniformed doormen with big smiles. They tipped their hats to me, saying, “Good day, little lady” adding glamour to a wannabe spy. “And where might you be off to today?”
“I’ll probably go to China. I’d like to see the Great Wall.”
“Well, I’m told your limits are four blocks north, south, east or west. Mind you obey those rules or I’ll be in trouble. You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”
“Never,” I’d promise. “I’ll be gone most of the day, though.”
“Mindful of the rules, little miss.”
“Yes, I shall.”
That my parents never owned a home didn’t cross my mind until much later: about the time I learned other kids’ folks did. I don’t even remember hearing my parents speak of such an oddity.
But then, the war ended and my father lost his job. We still moved around but to less upper-class towns, living in less eye-catching residences. Sometimes we lived in small apartments. Sharing a bath and often the kitchen with other families became a way of life. I adapted, and those experiences became imaginary times, too: I gave jobs to each of the residents like explorer, doctor, dressmaker or movie star.
First, Daddy sold automotive parts, then encyclopedias, and when we moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the summer of 1949, he sold Reader’s Digest subscriptions. Now, Mother worked too. In the local grocery store. It was within walking distance of my school, so I’d go there, sit on the floor, thumbing through magazines until she got off work and Daddy picked us up.
Not a day went by that I didn’t hear my parents say, “Times are hard.”
Again, I adapted.
Then we moved in with little old Mrs. Hallstead, whose house sat a half a block from the coastline. I appreciated those long summer days and prayed for us to stay forever. She had the sweetest face and wore her dull gray hair in braids wrapped around her head. She wore summery dresses of thin cloth covered in tiny pink, blue, and yellow flowers. I never knew what influenced her to open her storybook home to my family except Daddy said she was a widow, so maybe times were hard for her, too.
School was out. While my parents worked, Mrs. Hallstead and I sat on her screened-in porch facing the beach. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we just rocked, our high-backed chairs squeaking competitively. There was a white wicker swing out there, too. I loved to watch it, certain it was haunted by a wind that swayed it to and fro. A row of bright yellow-cushioned chaise lounges and green canvas sling chairs waited for men in white suits and straw hats and women in billowy, thin dresses sprinkled with dainty flowers. They would be arriving any moment. Of course, that didn’t happen but what a great idea, I thought.
Inside Mrs. Hallstead’s house, every room was stuffed with unusual treasures. In her bedroom, she showed me a glass bowl with rose petals. They smelled of ancient times, reminding me of the Arabian Nights. Above the mantle hung her husband’s sword in a gleaming silver and gold scabbard etched all over with vines and flowers. I could visualize him on horseback, fighting in dusty fields, slaying soldiers with evil intent.
In her kitchen, shelves were covered with rows and rows of canned vegetables in glass jars and one shelf way up high held jars of chicken feet. This terrified me, but when I got up the courage to ask, Mrs. Hallstead said, “Oh, my dear. Those are delicacies. They were cooked with left over vegetables, strained and sealed. Someday soon, I’ll make a pot of soup which you’ll love.”
I assured her that I would. She did make that tasty soup, and thank goodness, I never found one of those ugly, pink spooky feet hiding in it.
“Everyone is not as lucky as we are, my dear,” she’d say. “Not everyone has vegetables, or meat in their soup.”
I didn’t understand, but agreed, using my most grown-up tone as if I understood. But soon, I became aware that looking at Mrs. Hallstead’s possessions made me feel warm and at home although wide-eyed and cautious, having learned detachment to things at an early age.
That was the summer I discovered we were poor.
Then one day I heard my mother ask Mrs. Hallstead, “Where does that door in the dining room lead?” With her simple reply, “To a cluttered, dusty old attic,” the magic truly began.
I’d never been in an attic!
One bright summer day, I stood alone in the silent house. My parents were at work, school was still out, and Mrs. Hallstead’s daughter took her into town for shopping. I eased the heavy door open and tiptoed up in a dim light that grew brighter with each step. When my eyes drew level with the floor, I paused. There, in what felt like a land of suspended time, powdery sunlight streamed through dirty windows at each end of a room the size of hotel lobbies like where we’d lived. Warily, I moved center stage scrutinizing dark corners for signs of life. Nothing moved but the white dust — a lingering decay stirred up by me.
An awake dreamer, traveling into the world of the past, I inhaled musty — what I was sure was ghost-filled — air. All around me, lay wealth unknown in stacks of books, newspapers, magazines, boxes, trunks, and …
Suddenly, I heard a thud. I clapped my hand over my mouth to stifle my scream, but the noise was only my heart. I sighed deeply, and now, driving out fear, I stepped gingerly down paths between stacks of sheet-draped shapes lurking everywhere. Burning to touch it all, I sat down on the floor in the middle of this abandoned space, crossed my legs and drifted in and out of reality, imagining bones of the dead in those funny-shaped boxes and trunks filled with jewels.
Unaware of time, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard someone call softly, “Julia?”
Heart hammering in my throat, I sprang to my feet and ran toward the stairs, but Mrs. Hallstead blocked my escape.
“Oh, goodness gracious, Julia, dear. It’s all right. Here. Let me join you. It’s been ages since I ….”
Under her pale eyes and gentle smile, I calmed. She looked around as if she’d forgotten all the valuables in that attic, and sat down on a trunk. She clasped her gnarled hands and whispered, “Would you like to see my ball gowns?”
My nod came easy for I shook with fright. She opened the trunk she’d been sitting on, shook out a long dress the color of a deep forest and held it out to me
“Oh, it’s still beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am, it sure is.”
“And I had a fetish for hats in my younger days,” she said, opening one of those octagon-shaped boxes. She lifted out the most beautiful hat I’d ever seen. It was covered with faded rainbow-colored cloth petals that fluttered like they were alive when she lifted it high.
“Come here, my dear.”
I obeyed and she mashed that hat on my thick brown hair, pushing it down to my eyebrows. “Yes. Oh, yes. That makes you look very European, my dear.” I didn’t have a clue what that should look like.
How long we played dress-up and travelers extraordinaire, I don’t recall, but when the sun sucked in its rays, we ambled downstairs, my head swimming with stories of when Mrs. Hallstead visited Rome. All decked out in a pink silk suit and her pink wide-brimmed hat, she’d kissed the Pope’s ring. She had laughed, telling me how her hat bumped into his chest and flew away. And there was a military ball in Africa. She’d danced with her handsome soldier husband until dawn in that green and black taffeta. And in the creamy lace dress, she’d been plagued by a sneezing fit in the presence of Queen Elizabeth.
Many days afterwards, whenever it rained or she just seemed to need a break, she’d motion to me and we’d climb those stairs, rummaging and reading, talking and laughing, while I swished around in outlandish costumes.
Sometimes, while I turned pages in a thick brown and gold album, she’d answer my questions with descriptions of her travels and soirées that to me resembled fairy tales. Often, I’d catch her staring into space for long, silent moments. Letting her be, I’d continue through the photos, gazing at frozen, unfamiliar faces.
One photograph caught my eye. It was of a tall, mustachioed man standing beside a pretty, smiling brunette. She was holding a tiny baby and the soldier held the hand of a small boy. Once Mrs. Hallstead saw me staring at it and told me that wisp of a girl in the picture was a younger version of her with her youthful family.
My life did turn into a fairy tale.
I married an engineer who designed bridges. He took me with him on trips all over the world, so I continued
my dreamy, albeit absent-minded life, while I enjoyed writing children’s story books.
I taught our children how to play make-believe. About all the whimsical ways to keep happiness and adventure in their lives, just like I did.
To this day, I see the two of us up in that attic: me playing a lady in a magic looking-glass land and Mrs. Hallstead taking my hand, carrying me along as she relived her picturesque life. If she and the house were still
there I would love to return with her to finish our journey back in time to a life full of dust, enchanted clothes and a feast of times past.
I cherish those sparse years, especially the part with that sweet little old lady and our times in her attic: two children at play. In that attic, I learned how to keep magic close in my life and later in the lives of my own children.