(With thanks to TC for reminding me this was lurking in the archives.)
As young children, my brother and I had imaginary friends. His were both named Robert. Mine were named for three of my mother's college sorority sisters; they stopped by for tea. Our sister didn't play with imaginary friends, but had a stuffed bear named Elmira who alternately received rejection slips and checks from magazine publishers. There were days when the family junk mail held nothing for her, then there would be a check and our congratulations. Once in a while a manuscript was returned and we carried on as if nothing had happened.
Looking back on our fantasy play, I see us as children into whose lives a great big handful of magic beans had fallen. It is beyond my knowing, whether we created alternate worlds to escape the ordinary one or our make-believe was simply a product of being children, particularly children of parents who were also well connected to imagination, expressed through their writing and art and day-to-day living.
As we grew, our lives expanded when messengers of real magic began to appear. Some of them were drawn by our father's newspaper column or the radio talk shows on which he was interviewed as an expert on flying saucers.
It was through this door that Jackie and Sandy walked. A retired couple, they spent their summers traveling through North America with a carnival, he doing card tricks and she telling fortunes. They also loved the desert, a passion shared with our dad, and Jackie had seen UFOs. They became our godparents in non-ordinary reality and made our back-country desert trips much livelier with their tales of carney life, successful unearthing of ghost town relics and their unshakable belief in things which could not be explained.
The column led to our meeting an actual, larger-than-life treasure hunter named Romaine who traveled alone into the jungles of Mexico and South America looking for stories, artifacts and lost civilizations. Our father co-wrote some of his tales for men's adventure magazines. Each time he returned from these dangerous excursions, he brought the raw footage he'd shot and show it to us first. On one South American trip, he found a coatamundi which he named Panchito and smuggled on the plane inside his jacket. At our house the exotic pet roamed our living room, nibbling the dust jackets off books on the lowest shelves. Romaine came and spoke to my fourth-grade class, demonstrating a blow gun and poison darts used by one of the jungle tribes. (Much better show-and-tell than Boyce's tonsils in a jar.)
There were others. Some were friends from our dad's college days, science fiction and mystery writers; our family doctor who experimented with leeches (not on us) and knew about cooking rattlesnake; a motorcycle cop who taught us how to dig for arrowheads along the California coast; a museum curator who showed us through dim storerooms, spoke Native American dialects and knew sacred dances.
Any hours we spent in the company of these friends made our hearts lighter, our minds race. But it was overhearing the nighttime conversations that heightened the wonder.
My brother and I were past 50 when we first spoke of the nights we would lie quietly in our rooms, pretending to sleep and fighting to stay awake in our tiny house so we could hear the grown-up talk. Our younger sister sometimes slept through these hours but we struggled to hear every word. This was when the aliens and the ghosts and the seances, the spiders and the shrunken heads, the impossible and the terrifying and the gruesome were revealed.
This was the really good stuff. So we strained and listened, letting ourselves experience how enormous and unknowable the world really was, finding in these low-voiced exchanges not something to frighten us, but something to ignite and empower. We felt that we had been let in on The Secrets, allowed to know, perhaps unintentionally, that life, rich and full, existed beyond what the eye could see.
The three of us still carry those stories and their tellers in our pockets...like touchstones, like arrowheads or ghost town glass, like magic beans.