Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows. -John Betjeman
It all started when my mom said, ever so casually with the makings of lasagna sprawled on the counter behind her, “I wonder if things really happened that way.”
Here we were discussing the Little House on the Prairie books and she’d injected that comment into our seemingly benign conversation. I gaped at her, my mouth open like a fish. I’d always considered those books the gospel of pioneer life.
What was my dear mother saying, she who had always been the practical bystander? She told me as a child, “You know, life’s pretty boring most of the time.” No doubt, she’d glimpsed the kaleidoscope of stars in my eyes and sought to bring my feet back onto solid soil. Although her remark was most likely innocuous, I felt some of that old resentment as if she was still trying to break me from my whimsical childhood dreams.
The fact that I hadn’t come to grips with the probability that Laura’s books were a bit embellished might seem utterly ridiculous. But I hadn’t really thought about it. And here I was in my early thirties; it wasn’t as if I was ten and my mom had just told me Santa wasn’t real.
My daughter was ten when I told her the truth about Santa Claus. I’d hoped to avoid the conversation all together. Her older brother figured it out on his own, so I’d been hoping she would do the same and spare me the trouble. Her questions were verging on discovery. How did Santa get all around the world in one night? How did he remember every kid? I waited for common sense to bushwhack her fallacy into the ground, but instead, Autumn latched onto the elf enterprise idea. It was simple, she said. Elves helped him, his own stash of minions hustling behind the scenes. Her expressive large eyes told me she wanted it to be true.
But Autumn was in fifth grade, and it was time to tell her the truth before she heard it from some snotty-nosed kid in her class.
One afternoon, I found her slouched in the recliner in our office. I sank into the rotating office chair, the swerve soothing my trepidation, “Have you ever considered that Santa might not be real?”
I expected a shrug or a mumbled “maybe, yeah.” To my surprise, the tears tumbled from her eyes and she scampered into my lap; “Wait. What? Santa isn’t real?” she cried.
I rested my chin on her hair. Tell it to her straight, I thought. “He isn’t a real person. Dad and I buy all the presents.”
She grabbed for the tissues on the desk; “Why does everyone lie about Santa, then?”
I expounded on the legend of St. Nick and how the story had evolved. We need stories, I said, to help us understand life, to give us joy and wisdom. Santa is one of those stories. And he is a symbol of Christ and His ability to visit and care about everyone on the earth.
She wasn’t buying it. It was like explaining the lack of French fries with a plate of sushi.
I tried to backpedal, “You can believe in Santa as long as you want.”
Too late, Kristen. Too late.
She tried to lessen the blow for herself, “Did the real St. Nick at least laugh, Ho Ho Ho?”
I wanted to say, of course he did! Instead, I mumbled, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
Her eyes rimmed redder as she asked me one final question, “Does this mean Spiderman isn’t real either?”
Autumn was five the summer we raised turkeys. When it came time to harvest one for Thanksgiving, Autumn’s older brother opted to watch the process, but Autumn lingered at the back door, “I won’t want Daddy to kill the turkey!” Her tears were as large as raindrops. I comforted her with nonsense about turkey heaven and the painless process of getting your head chopped off. This seemed to cheer her up a bit.
But then she got it in her head that she wanted to “see the dead turkey.” It was as if she decided that facing what terrified her would be better than standing on the other side of the glass door with only her imagination. Hand in hand, we started the trek across the grass toward the back of the yard. Only when we drew near the firepit did I realized, with horror, that Wade hadn’t killed the turkey yet. It was too late to do much but turn my head as the axe fell. Autumn scampered like a rattled squirrel and beelined for the house screaming, “I don’t want to see the dead turkey, I don’t want to see the dead turkey!” In the end, she chose her imagination over the real thing. I couldn’t blame her.
The Toby McGuire films inspired Autumn’s obsession with Spiderman. She saved up her allowance to purchase a full-body Spiderman suit from Amazon. Loving the motion, the boomerang, the bravado of Spiderman, she wanted to set the world right. She dreamed about shimmying up brick walls and hawking between the skyscrapers to rescue the distressed and the downtrodden.
One morning, I caught her stuffing the costume into her backpack, “So I’ll be ready if some bad guys show up at school,” she said, with a flip of her ponytail.
Autumn has always tangled with stories. She swallows the plots whole and fuses the characters into her psyche. One month, Scooby-Doo overran the house. She cut out pictures of the characters, mounted them on popsicle sticks, and built a puppet stage out of a box with a rotating background scroll. The next month, she designed a full-sized Captain America shield with cardboard and colored duct tape. She choreographed a ten-minute lightsaber fight between her and her brother after receiving deluxe lightsabers for Christmas. A hammer materialized from a shoebox and spray paint after Thor hit the big screen.
But her obsession with The Lord of the Rings overshadowed all else. Autumn spent hours creating Aragon and Legolas costumes with hangers, plastic swords, oatmeal tins, construction paper, and K’NEX sticks for arrows. With duct tape (truly a girl’s best friend), Autumn shaped the all-powerful ring and hung it around her neck with some string. An elvish-looking brown belt from my closet finished the ensemble. Piecemealing the characters’ costumes was her way of keeping them real in her mind. It was her way of constellating their world into ours with the telescopic of her imagination.
The blood runs thick between us, mother and daughter. As a child, I likewise obsessed over stories, crushed on certain characters, and yearned for tales to be true. For many years, I lived amid reality and fiction—passing between them like crossing a border between two hostile countries. Stories from books and movies filled my soul up to the nostrils. I saw D.A.R.Y.L. at the SCERA Theater in Orem the summer of 1986. When the red curtain closed on the screen (yes, there was a curtain in those days), I blinked in confusion at the kids laughing and throwing candy wrappers. The edgeless sunshine outside added to the unreality.
Riding home in the yellow station wagon, my heart thumped with the story. He was really a robot! All along! During the baseball game, or lunchtime at the kitchen table, or when his adopted family fell in love with him—he remained a robot with a human body. Somehow his artificialness had evolved, and he’d developed human emotions. Love and anger and fear. It was all so breathlessly heady for my twelve-year-old mind. I was obsessed with it for days. It bewildered my thoughts and crept under my skin until I no longer felt solid or tame.
When I was in junior high, my obsession with The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton manifested itself in the large sections of my journal filled with copied quotes from the book along with my devoted teenage commentary. We watched the movie in English class and when Johnny died in the hospital after saving the kids from the church fire, I could barely eat my lunch in the aseptic cafeteria. My friend asked what was wrong.
“Johnny died,” I choked out. She looked at me funny.
“You know, the movie we are watching in English?”
“Oh that. I guess that didn’t really bother me too much. I wasn’t all that into it.”
I looked at her in astonishment. How was that possible? How could she not feel the throes of Johnny’s death? I felt as if she’d personally thrown the burning timber that killed that cute young karate kid.
During her tween years, Autumn decided it was high time to break some world records. After some fastidious research, she showed me her list.
World Records to Break
1. Fastest sack race
2. Fastest mile with shoelaces tied together
3. Most soccer rainbows in a minute
4. Most marshmallows caught in the mouth in a minute.
5. Longest soccer kick caught between legs.
For days, she discussed these records with me. I wondered how to proceed. Should I grab the stopwatch and the gunny sack and drive her to the local school track? How high should I let her dreams soar before anchoring her wonder to the ground with something more than paper string?
Part of the rapture of childhood is the possibilities that stretch skyward like intricate branches of a tree. The hues of childhood bleed rich dahlia and dandelion yellow.
When I was around nine, I remember a lunch at Arctic Circle with my best friend, Jamie, and her dad. Carefree, we relished our cheeseburgers, giggling about Michael Jackson’s newfangled moonwalk and the sauce mustache on Jamie’s upper lip. Her dad silently surveyed our cheer with a heaviness I only vaguely sensed at the time.
“You are at the best time of your life. Right now,” he said.
“Huh?” The fry sauce dripped from our fries.
“Life just gets harder so enjoy it while you can. You are at the best time of your life.” Then he was silent again.
Weird, I thought. Why would he say this? We had yet to live a decade. Our lives had just begun, our brilliant futures stretching before us like the yellow brick road. We finished our French fries and cheeseburgers and slurped up the last of the root beer that always gave me a stomachache. When Jamie’s dad left to dispose of our trays, a bearded man in the booth next to us stood up to leave.
“Elvis is alive!” he whispered; “Spread the word.” He winked and left.
I believed him for years.
“We could still play in this!” Autumn frowned as we inched into the parking lot for the penalty kick playoff. A snowstorm had ruined the last day of her soccer tournament. I looked over the fields blanketed with muddy, sloshy snow. It was no use reminding her of the danger of playing in such conditions, not to mention the damage to the fields. She just wanted to play.
Now a teenager, she was on the crust of discovery, her magic carpet fraying at the edges. Her daily questions hinged on the hysteria. Life was turning into a crapshoot, “If you get stranded somewhere without water, you aren’t supposed to drink your pee, right? It makes it worst, right?”
More than anything, she wanted pee-drinking to be W.R.O.N.G. Period.
“Why do the good guys never seem to win in real life?”
“They will win, in the end,” I told her.
“But it’s not fair now,” she moaned.
Rarely satisfied with the answers, she doesn’t want this world to be crummy. But this world is crummy. And unfair, and a smasher of dreams. I want her to dream but I also want her to know she might not make the pros in soccer. Her emotions run deep and raw like the pain of running hot water over freezing hands.
Recently, Autumn’s teacher assigned Night by Elie Wiesel for English class. “How did it happen?” she asked, stealing up behind me in the kitchen. “Germans were people too. How could they kill other humans?” Her cobalt eyes probed my face.
Tell it to her straight, I thought. Anti-Semitism growing in Europe for centuries. The dehumanization of an entire race until anything was permissible. The Germans frantic for a leader to save them. A loaf of bread costing a wheelbarrow of money. Weary of shouldering the blame for the Great War.
My daughter’s face told me these explanations sounded like minnows in a raging sea. She was right, “Didn’t the guards feel guilty for killing people?”
I paused with the potato peeler over the sink; “I’m sure some of them did and others didn’t. Many thought they were doing what was right for their country.”
The blood runs thick between us, mother and daughter. We search for a narrative that will interpret the Holocaust plot and decipher its symbols. We seek for a translation from senseless to analytical, from horror to hope. But this time, there is no story to sidestep sorrow or edit history. And for Autumn, it means one more step toward the weary wisdom of maturity. Every day, I watch her struggle to shed her childhood skin and emerge red and raw into adulthood. I pray the process takes awhile.
On a recent trip to the Amazon rainforest, our guide took us deep into the teeming jungle that breathed like a gigantic pair of earthly lungs. Gleaming with mosquito repellent, we trudged single file through the dense flora and fauna, hurtling past ant hills whenever our guide spotted one.
“The ants are much more dangerous than the snakes,” he explained.
Ahead of me, Autumn began to test the strength of the thick vines and lianas hanging down from the canopy like dangling tendrils, “Tarzan can’t swing from these vines. They aren’t strong enough.”
“You know Tarzan isn’t real, right?” I teased.
“I know, Mom. Anyway, he lived in the African jungle.”
He did indeed.
Yet she kept testing their sturdiness, as I trailed her through the undergrowth. Gripping a thick vine, she two-stepped forward and hurdled over a root, testing her weight. This one might be strong enough.
She looked to the sunlight that hovered above the trees. She was dreaming of swinging through the branches and leaves, I’m sure of it. If only it could be true, if physics and aerodynamics shed their straitlaced regulations, she would soar like Elastigirl through the chaparral. She hankered after Tarzan. She wanted to fly.
Let her have this dream, I thought. Let her fly.
Kristen Ott Hogan is a writer and blogger whose work has appeared in Segullah Magazine and on her website: kristenhogan.wordpress.com. She co-authored, Phoenix Flame, a memoir chronicling her nephew’s battle with mental illness. She lives in Syracuse, Utah, with her four children and her husband.