Averyell A. Kessler
What’s the most important thing I learned growing up in Jackson? Yikes!! Before you hide under the covers or take shelter in a crowded closet, let me explain. I’m not talking about multiplication tables, the proper spelling or Argentina, and anything else I learned meandering through the Jackson Public School System. It’s a habit I discovered in childhood and nourished my entire life. The answer is a simple, one word prescription for boredom, laziness, or any other childhood affliction. It’s called pretend.
In an over-scheduled culture of electronics and organization, I’m not sure today’s children have the luxury of pretending. Perhaps adults don’t realize the benefits of lying in the grass and staring at the sky as clouds float by. Maybe they’re unaware that elephants drift past, also giraffes, sandcastles, and leaping dolphins. Maybe, Winnie the Pooh waves and says come a with me. Captain Hook might explain that the fallen tree branch in the driveway is really a pirate sword. Simply put, pretending is fun and anything is possible. It’s a delightful adventure in childhood make believe and should never reference adults dabbling in falsity and affectation.
In long ago Belhaven, my friend Martha and I were masters of pretend. Our specialty, the backyard parade. The basics were always at hand, a wagon, costumes, and music, as well as dolls dressed for the occasion or stuffed animals eager for a ride over a bumpy sidewalk. I had a radio flyer, she had a scooter, and we both had pogo sticks. Costumes were easy, my Davy Crockett coonskin cap, her Indian headdress, flowered aprons from the kitchen, clamp-on roller skates ( hopefully we still had the key), and lipstick borrowed from our mothers’ cosmetics drawers. Parade music came from an empty cigar box covered with multicolored rubber bands. Plunk, plunk, plunk. Also, a plastic harmonica, slide whistles, leftover Christmas jingle bells, and maybe a bubble gum cigar or two. After the afternoon passed in a flurry of creativity, we marched for our parents before suppertime ended our fun. We also specialized in magic tricks, puppet shows staring sock puppets and paper plates, and trying to figure out how we could fly.
Pretending to be story book characters opened a treasure trove of ideas. Neither of us would have ever bitten into the poison apple offered by a wicked witch, nibbled on her cottage door, or peered into her oven. The mole on her nose was an obvious giveaway. We discussed in detail how to leap over Billy Goat Gruff, avoid a monster hiding under a bridge, and would have run like the wind if Rumpelstiltskin invaded our dreams. Most of all we longed to accompany Wendy and Peter Pan on their flight to Neverland.
When my third year at Power School ended, I received the ultimate gift for a pretender. My grandfather WG built a treehouse for me. He arrived shortly after sunup on a Saturday morning with a huge octogen shaped sheet of thick plywood, a team of men from his plant, heavy oak posts, a small step ladder, and unbridled enthusiasm. When I heard his truck rumbling in our driveway, I leaped out of bed and ran screaming into the yard. By noon, the tree house was in place. Six feet off the ground, it surrounded a study oak tree immediately adjacent to our back door and was in full view of my mother’s kitchen window. WG finished his project with a pointed canvas roof so that it looked like a carousel nesting in the tree. What a treasure! I was ecstatic. Martha was too. That summer, and for many thereafter, we climbed that ladder into our own world. In an instant, we were cowgirls on the lookout for rustlers, lonely princesses waiting for rescue from a high tower room, and Wendy, of course, watching for Peter Pan and Tinker Bell. We shared the treehouse with our dolls, watched birds and squirrels though a pair of toy binoculars, and shivered when a garden snake emerged from the bushes, crawled under the treehouse, and vanished into an air grate on the side of our house. We considered shooting a rubber tipped arrow at this unwelcomed creature, but our aim was unreliable. We welcomed visiting cats and laughed when our dog Skipper raised his leg against a treehouse post. This was our nirvana, our escape hatch from adult requirements, and a chance live in our private world of pretend.
I lost interest when junior high gleamed on the horizon and serious growing up took hold. It’s gone now, but not really. For me, the treehouse is still hanging around, as is my hero, Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Pretending is close kin to imagination and a vital part of a child’s first independent thoughts. It is an invitation to make our own fun, create our own adventures, and tell a new story – our story. If we’re lucky, imagination is a lifelong blessing.
For a writer, imagination is essential. “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”* I understand many scholars claim that seven basic plots exist in literature, film, and theatre. That’s not a problem, because a story is all in the telling. Imagination is the inspirational fire and bellwether for every story. Creativity and innovation are the delightful result. Hooray! I am thankful that a tiny scrap of Neverland still dwells in my brain and I don’t think it’s going away. “Come with me,” Peter says. “It’s not too late. You can still fly! Second star to the right and straight on ‘till morning.”