Sunday, April 03, 2005

How Laura Ingalls, Bing Crosby and Helen Keller became my playmates

Because Psycho Kitty asked . . . here's how my head worked when I was 9. Warning: I was obviously already a geek, so for non-geeks out there, this might be a bit disturbing.

When I was 9, I had a very active imagination. A year earlier, when I was 8 and in 3rd grade, the school had an assembly where some guy came and told us that the sun was going to supernova and swallow all the planets. Boom--no more earth! Well, I was already freaked out about death, having discovered it from a Looney Tunes cartoon, where the mouse gets tired of eating cheese and asks the cat to eat him. This freaks the cat out, so the cat seeks out the dog to beat him to death. Naturally, the dog freaks out in turn and the cartoon ends with the dog chasing the dog catcher, cat and mouse trailing behind. My little logical 7-year-old mind reasoned that eventually, someone would come ask me to off them and I would then be required to find someone to do me in. This made me wake in a cold sweat and go crying to my father.

Somehow I managed to deal with the idea of death by thinking that I'd be somewhere around on planet earth somehow even if it was just buried in the ground and generating flowers. But this new wrinkle of having the planet disappear entirely disturbed me greatly. My friend, Robyn Gonzales, and I decided the best way to handle this was to believe in ghosts and that we could go live anywhere we wanted, some other universe or something. The problem was, both of us being kind of science-oriented, we needed some proof. Well, I didn't want to wait around, having tried to prove the existence of God a year earlier by asking him to make the big pine tree in the yard fall over. Invisible beings like God and ghosts tended not to follow orders in my experience, so I needed to convince Robyn and myself that ghosts existed without real ghosts.

First, I needed some dead people. No one I knew had died, so I couldn't pull from my own immediate family. I needed some dead people that I knew enough about to convince others that I was really speaking to them. (I really missed a career in channelling, no? I could have given that John guy a run for his money.) As it happened, I had just finished reading all the Little House books, so I knew Laura well. Then Bing Crosby died. I only knew him as the guy that sang White Christmas, but my teacher that year was a fan and told us all about him. We had also just finished studying Helen Keller and watching a movie about her. So there I had it: three good dead people to work with.

My first clear memory of playing with the ghosts occurred in my back yard under the big maple tree. We loved to climb this tree, but the branches were also low enough that the area around the tree was somewhat enclosed and we treated it much like a house. So we were playing and I suddenly declared that Laura Ingalls was among us.

Robyn: "Really, where?"
Me, gesturing toward "Laura": "Right here. She says hello and that she's glad to meet us."

Robyn did not seem surprised and all nor did any other neighborhood kids. They just went along like it was completely normal to have a ghost among us. Bing and Helen (who was still blind but not deaf) showed up quickly and we all (ghosts included) would play merrily in the yard for long periods. Sometimes we would do things out of the Little House books. We'd go pick apples or find syrup or something appropriately frontier-like. Or we'd play school with Helen, who liked to teach us things. Bing was always kind of on the periphery since we didn't know him very well. We just thought it was nice to have a guy around.

Bing, Helen and Laura remained our playmates for quite a while. They showed up on the playground, in our houses, even at the swimming pool. But it all came to an end when we started reading about "real" ghosts. Robyn and I checked out every book we could get our hands on about ghosts, initially to enhance our experience playing with Bing, Helen and Laura. But these books were creepy. They did not depict the friendly, Casper-like ghosts we had conjured for our play. These ghosts scared people. Sometimes they didn't have heads. Sometimes they did horrible things like break things in people's houses or try to suffocate them. We began to think of Bing, Helen and Laura in these terms.

I don't know if Robyn experienced this, but I began to "see" these scary ghosts at night as I was drifting off to sleep. One would be in my closet. Another would be hovering in the nook in front of the window. I might catch a glimpse of another in the hall. They were always so ephermeral, unable to be seen completely and that's what scared me. They weren't definite the way I'd imagined Laura, Helen and Bing. This also ruined the comfort I had taken from the idea that I, too, might become a ghost. I did not want to be this indefinite creature who scared people.

So we let Laura, Helen, and Bing go and moved on to believing we had super powers. It was really the beginning of the end of our ability to immerse ourselves in imaginative play. We didn't realize it at the time, of course, but we were growing up.