Years ago, my daughter-in-law asked me “Do you remember the first time that you thought to yourself ‘being a grown-up really sucks’?” I laughed and told her that I had reached that conclusion so many times over the intervening years that I couldn’t begin to recall the first time. I don’t remember now what had led her to realize that grown-up life isn’t entirely the fun, freedom, and fast cars that we all envision in our teen years. At the time, she was the mother of a baby and a toddler and married to my charming but utterly unreliable younger stepson; the possibilities were endless.
Thinking about Heidi and her discovery of the unfortunate truth about adulthood has led me to reflect on other seminal moments of realization that shift a person’s understanding of life. Some of these are nearly universal – falling in love for the first time, having a child, realizing one’s own mortality. Others are widespread within a particular cultural group, like the experience of being born again for Christians or puberty ceremonies among many indigenous peoples. Still others are more personal but no less a landmark change in one’s understanding of life.
I grew up an only child in a neighborhood where there were no other children near my age. It was a time when “free-range childrearing” was so entirely the norm that it didn’t need a name, and as a result, I was left very much to find my own entertainment for whole days at a time. Imagination provided my playmates, my games, my playhouses, my fantastic costumes and beautiful horses, my adventures, my joy, and my solace in times of trouble or sadness. I was a solitary child but rarely lonely or bored.
From spring through fall I played outdoors. A stack of unused cinderblocks behind the garage was my castle. The big boxelder tree was variously my mansion, my fort, or my secret beanstalk leading me to an upper world peopled by giants and fairies and other magical creatures. The two vacant lots behind our house were the wide-open prairies and deserts and canyons of the great American West where I rode my cowpony and fought off rustlers and bandits with my trusty cap pistol.
The long Michigan winters and our tiny two-bedroom house restricted the space and props available for my self-produced stories and adventures, but not the scope of my imagination. The schefflera plant on its stand by the living room window was a grove of palm trees and other tropical plants; the curved end of the oval braided rug below it was the edge of a beautiful lagoon. Robinson Crusoe might arrive any minute. The puffy arm of the overstuffed armchair was perfectly proportioned to be my horse when my bicycle was overwintering in the garage rafters.
Sometimes my mother would let me drape the dining room table in quilts and blankets, and I would settle myself in a desert tent with camel caravans passing by. Other times I would find myself in a dungeon from which I heroically rescued a wrongly imprisoned hero or in a mountain cave occupied by an evil witch who guarded a great treasure that rested under the claw and ball foot of one of the table legs. (Great caution had to be taken not to scratch the finish on said table legs while buckling swashes in the dungeon or fending off the witch in the cave – otherwise permission to play under the table might be withdrawn for good.)
Once, the motor burned out in the sump pump in our basement, resulting in the accumulation of several inches of water on the basement floor. My parents raced off to buy replacement parts, but I sat at the bottom of the stairs and imagined a whole series of floating islands with miniature villages and towns and castles built on them and waterways winding among them. I pictured all the tiny houses and barns and the stores and churches and the beautiful flower gardens as well as the small dainty boat that would carry me among the islands to see all these pretty places close up. Disneyland hadn’t been built yet, but what I imagined was rather like the Small World ride only without the annoying music.
The winter that I was eight, I created a long chain made of multicolored construction paper links and draped it over two nails on my bedroom wall. It served as a magical doorway, a portal that allowed me to pass through to any imaginary place that I chose to visit. One day after school I stood in front of the doorway and decided on the particular place and the particular story that I wanted to pretend, and then I stepped through. But nothing happened. I could picture the place clearly in my mind, but for the first time in my life, I couldn’t make it be real.
I can still see so clearly in memory that paper chain hanging on my wall. I remember standing very still and, oddly, I remember understanding what had happened. I was starting to grow up, and I had lost the small child’s ability to enter wholly into the worlds of make believe. I don’t know how I knew that, but I was right. I never could pass through the portal again. For the rest of my childhood I still spent hot summer days and gray winter afternoons imagining and acting out stories that I created or read, but the cinderblocks remained just cinderblocks and the dungeon never reappeared under the dining room table. I took down the construction paper chain that winter afternoon, and I hid it in the back of my closet. I never saw it again.
Lynne Sebastian is a retired Southwestern archaeologist who received her PhD from the University of New Mexico in 1988. In addition to carrying out fieldwork and research on the archaeology of the Four Corners region, she has served as New Mexico’s State Archaeologist and State Historic Preservation Officer and as a historic preservation consultant for the SRI Foundation in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. After retiring, Dr. Sebastian began taking OLLI courses through the UNM Continuing Education program. A chance meeting in an OLLI course on Writing Memoir sent her retirement into a whole new direction when she was invited to join a creative writing critique group. She recently completed the draft of her first novel and is working on a volume of short stories.