“Nothing happens in an instant. Nothing starts happening and nothing finishes happening. History doesn’t begin anywhere. And it doesn’t end.” –Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
The modern-day television show Once Upon a Time is one of my favorites. No fairytale is off limits. In the town of Storybrooke, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves intertwines with Peter Pan which intertwines with Pinocchio which intertwines with Cinderella. Plot lines twist and contort. The writers of the show capture the Disney versions, manipulate the tales beautifully and unexpectedly, and somehow keep the sacred feel of the fairytales intact. The stories are so convincing that you question your memory. “Did Rumpelstiltskin really love Belle, or was Belle originally from Beauty and the Beast?” But then you see that Rumpelstiltskin is both himself and the Beast.
You learn after watching several seasons that truth is different in this world. You learn that history doesn’t begin or end anywhere. Stories never take place in a straight line. Each episode is now and it’s the past. You have to suspend your need to know why and how and when—too many past episodes, too many details, too many relationships to hold in your mind at once. Once Upon a Time teaches you to just trust and embrace and wait. It can take a long time to tell a convoluted story and it won’t make sense until the end. And even then, it’s still not really the end, just a pause in the story, time to catch your breath. Just relax. It could take a lifetime to discover all the stories in a fragmented fairytale.
My father’s mother, Grandma Elaine, brought magic into the world much like characters of Storybrooke do. She was young and beautiful and in her early forties when I was born. She wore Charlie perfume and dressed with class, her slacks and blouses (as she called them) always pressed to perfection.
Being with Grandma was the magic of discovering books, the stories and universes inside them, the way you could escape the mundane or the scary parts of real life. With every visit to see her in Littleton, she would take me to Dalton’s, the mall bookstore, and let me spend more than an hour choosing my books. Then at night, she sat on the edge of the bed and read them to me.
Being with Grandma was lying next to her on the bed (Grandpa must have been traveling for work), under an open window, looking out at the summer stars, listening to her tales of kindergarten, a world unknown to me—yellow school buses and learning to write the alphabet and running on the playground. She meant for the stories to lull me to sleep, but who could sleep when there was a whole new world I didn’t know about out there?
“When do I get to go to school, Grandma? When?”
“Soon, honey, real soon. Now sleep.”
Grandma and Grandpa lived in historic Old Town Littleton. My little brother David and I lived with our father and stepmother three hours away on the eastern plains of Colorado, in La Junta. Now and then Grandma would come visit us, but more often we’d meet at the Waffle House in Colorado Springs and David and I would go home with our grandparents in their cigarette smoke-filled diesel Suburban for a week or two. And once in a while, the family would meet in the “middle” in Cañon City. Cañon is where our great-grandparents lived, where our sixteen-year-old mom and eighteen-year-old-dad married right before I was born, and where we lived as a family until my parents’ divorce when I was five.
I couldn’t get enough of my grandma. No matter what town I saw her in, she always had gifts like a duckling necklace or a turquoise turtle ring, hand-sewn clothes and matching outfits for my doll Mandy, and even a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves cardboard cutout fairytale world that I played with on her built-in dining room table in her Craftsman home in Littleton. The whole house was full of nooks and crannies, so different than our new-construction house in La Junta. Here, things were old. Here, I could feel the stories encased by the wooden bookshelves. There was magic all around: the laundry chute in the hallway where my brother and I dropped toys that disappeared, only to reappear in the basement a minute later; or, even better, the secret walk-in closet-sized sewing room off Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom. This room you wouldn’t expect to find off a bedroom, so it was a surprise to me each time I entered. My grandmother spent most of her time in this room, creating beautiful things for me (reversible jumpsuits, overalls with buttons, dresses with bric-a-brac trim). She hunched over the table for days, marking, cutting, and pinning patterns to fabric and then sat at the Singer, controlling the speed with the knee lever, the whirr of the machine lulling us both. No one else spent so much time and effort loving me.
Often in fairytales, good people are cursed—poisoned, fingers pricked, spells cast upon, or turned to stone. And sometimes the bad characters are punished—slit throats, eaten for dinner, or forced to dance in iron shoes previously cooked in the fire.
Still, the good ones don’t always win. Sometimes evil gets the upper hand. Sometimes you can’t tell who is who. And sometimes you don’t know you’re experiencing a fairytale until years later.
When I was five and my brother David was three (or maybe we were six and four—how am I to know?), our new stepmother took us to Grandma’s house one dark night. I’m sure the stepmother was not thrilled with this task. She didn’t know us kids would end up living with her when she married our dad at eighteen. She admits years later that she resented having two instant children. We were not part of her fairytale.
I don’t remember the three-hour drive from La Junta to Littleton, but I know Grandma swept us into the hidden sewing room off her bedroom the moment we arrived.
On this night the room didn’t hold its usual big table filled with fabric pinned to patterns. Instead, a cot sat against the wall covered in blankets and pillows and a little television had been placed on the table. And because she always fed us, I like to imagine her freshly baked peanut butter cookies were waiting for us next to two glasses of cold milk. Grandma told us a very special show was on PBS and we were so lucky to watch it. “Sleeping Beauty!” she said. “It’s my favorite.” The show was just starting. We watched for a moment—a ballet with white sets and white lights and dancing. Grandma looked at me, “Stay in the room no matter what. Okay, sweetie?” I nodded, wide-eyed, already caught up in the fairytale.
My toddler brother fell asleep next to me, but I watched the dancing and the pricked finger on a spinning wheel and the sleeping girl, and I stayed awake. I had to wait until the prince boy kissed the girl to wake her from a long, long slumber. The orchestra music insulated the sewing room. There, in that peaceful place, there were no police on the porch banging on the door. There, in that magical world, our mother wasn’t crying and begging for my grandmother to give her children back. There, in that place, Grandma wasn’t telling the police and our mother that she had no idea where the children were.
Only magical grandmothers can weave a spell so reality altering.
When you first meet Snow White’s stepmother Regina (aka the Wicked Queen) in Once Upon a Time, you hate, hate, hate her. But as the seasons progress, you see why the Queen was so evil. She hurt. Regina’s mother killed her one true love, the stablehand, when she was young and made her marry Snow White’s father, the King, instead. Anyone could turn mean after that kind of betrayal.
As you learn Queen Regina’s story, you find there is a new enemy in Storybrooke (the Queen’s own mother, of course—the destroyer of love) and the Queen fights to save those she had tried so hard to kill in season one.
The lesson is clear: You can’t judge whether people are good or evil without knowing them—their fears and insecurities and dreams and, most importantly, their history. It takes a lifetime (or many seasons) to really understand a person. And even then, you can’t fully know the whole of his or her truth.
When I was five, hidden in the sewing room, I knew how important it was to concentrate on the ballet. I knew it was essential to listen to my grandmother so her magic would work, so she could enchant me.
And her magic did work, because even when I’m all grown up I will look back on that night as spellbinding. It was the sweetest of all the kidnappings.
When I was in first grade, the children at school were baffled my mother lived two hours away in Cañon City. “You don’t live with your mom?” they always asked. Later, as an adult, I’ll realize how rare it is for a father to have custody of his children in the 1970s.
When I was nine or ten, visiting my mother in Cañon City for Christmas break, she sat on the edge of the bed and told me a bedtime story, a different kind than my grandmother had told me about kindergarten. I had said something earlier in the evening that prompted this story, but I don’t remember what it was, only that she was angry and on a mission to correct my error in thinking. Maybe I said something nice about my father or Grandma Elaine.
Mom said that after the divorce, after Dad had already moved to La Junta, she, David, and I were in a car accident. I remembered every detail of the wreck. Mom’s hand across my chest, struck hard from behind, loose seats, me on the floor. Mom said after the accident she had pinched nerves in her back and she was in too much pain to care for us. The doctor suggested she rest, so she drove us to La Junta to stay with our dad and his new wife for one month. “Just a month while I recovered,” she said.
Mom’s lip quivered. “When I called to talk to you and David on the phone, your dad’s wife would make up excuses why you couldn’t come to the phone.” (Were we outside playing? Or in bed for the night?) Mom said that when she went to get us back from my father he stood on the front porch, holding the door open with his foot. “They aren’t here. You can’t have them back,” he said. “It will be a cold day in hell before you see the kids if you don’t sign the custody papers.”
Years after that day on the porch with Dad, Mom sat on the bed, still angry, her blue eyes on fire. I feared this side of her, and yet I wanted to comfort her. She said she drove all over the state trying to find us. She went to my grandmother’s house with the police, but Grandma denied we were there. Mom said, “Your Grandma and Dad are cruel, horrible people. They took you kids away from me.”
Even at ten, I remembered enough to know the night she spoke of was the night of Sleeping Beauty in the secret sewing room. After Mom said goodnight, and the dark took over, I felt sick. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t comprehend how my father and grandmother could be evil.
Folktales arise from oral tradition, so there are as many versions of these stories as there are people who tell them. The original story remains fully unknown. Capturing a story on the page reclaims it, allows it to be examined more slowly, like a prism being turned in the light, every angle creating new patterns of color. Still, writing it down doesn’t guarantee truth.
If I could rub a magic lantern or wish upon a star, I’d want answers to some questions.
How did my mother know to look for us in Littleton at Grandma’s house?
Did she call my Grandma and say, “I’m bringing the police to your house to get my children”? Grandma must have suspected Mom was coming since she converted the sewing room to a hideaway.
Was my mother driving all over the state crying out for her children?
Danger or fear can exist in the unknown. But in the unknown, there is also possibility and wonder. The realm of possibility is where enchantment lives. And wonder makes enchantment live forever.
Humans like to be scared—we love the wicked witch’s cackle, the wolf’s hot breath, and the old lady who eats children because sometimes, when the scary is over, all we remember is the magic.
For years after my mother told me the bedtime story, I tried to reconcile all my memories and I always felt guilty about this one day—the day she finally got to see us again after we were stashed away in the sewing room. The day the custody papers were signed.
When I was six and David was four, and we lived in our brand-new, split-level, green house on Carson Street, my dad announced, “Your mom is coming to get you for a visit today.” Stepmother dressed us in our best outfits: me, in a lacy dress, my ears sticking out through my straight hair, and David, in his buttoned-up shirt, with his blonde hair swept to the side. David and I bounced around in anticipation, waiting for our mom to arrive. First we leaned against the bumper of our Ford Pinto out in the driveway, but were soon bored and Saturday morning cartoons called us back inside. Lying on our bellies in front of the TV, chins in hands, spellbound by Scooby-Doo, we forgot all about Mom coming to visit.
Later, I noticed a young, pretty, auburn-headed woman talking to my dad in a hushed voice, behind us in the hallway. She must have rung the bell or knocked, but I hadn’t noticed. She saw me looking at her. I wondered who she was, but only for a moment because The Smurfs came on. I loved The Smurfs more than any other cartoon.
The woman handed Dad some papers and took a step closer to us. She knelt down and opened her arms. “Come to your mommy,” she said. I knew then she must be my mom, but I didn’t know her. I didn’t remember her. David and I stood up, feeling unsure. We shuffled hand in hand across the room into her clutch. And then when I hugged her and smelled her, I remembered her.
I have more questions.
Did my mom try to call or see us before we were hidden away and did my dad and stepmother refuse her? And if she did, how long did she try before she came to take us back?
How much time passed before Mom came to get us for that visit? How long did it take for her to agree to sign the custody papers? How long, exactly, does it take for a child to forget her mother?
When I was sixteen, long after my dad and stepmother divorced, my dad’s girlfriend, who I trusted and adored, said that my father told her it was eight months before Mom came back to get us. Eight months. And then I realized it wasn’t my fault I forgot my mother. The guilt subsided a little because eight months is a lifetime when you are barely in kindergarten.
And when I was sixteen or eighteen or twenty, Grandma told me, “I begged your father to get custody of you kids after the divorce. Your mom didn’t take good care of you. I couldn’t stand seeing that! I knew your dad could do better.”
I was in my twenties visiting Mom and she said when I was a baby, she and Dad had an argument in the Safeway parking lot in Cañon City. Dad pushed her out of the car, stealing me away to New Mexico to stay with his mother. Dad and I made the long drive to Albuquerque with only a partial bottle of milk and the diaper I was wearing.
In the same visit, or maybe another altogether (after all, these stories were repeated over and over to me throughout the years—always at the kitchen table, both of us smoking, drinking coffee), Mom told me she left Dad once when I was less than a year old. She took me to Tennessee, tucked in her lap, on a Greyhound bus. We went to live with a military man—a man she thought she loved. Eventually, though, we went back to Dad. A year or so later my baby brother was born.
I was in my thirties when I became convinced that yes, it must have been a long time before Mom came back to pick up my brother and me, because when we first went to stay with Dad and Stepmother we lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Santa Fe Street. David and I slept on a mattress in the dining room. By the time our mother came to get us for a visit (and I concede she had many obstacles in her way), a whole house had been built on Carson Street and we’d moved in. Dad had driven us by the lot weekly to gauge the progress, from the concrete foundation on up. Building a house could take eight months.
When I was forty-one, Dad told me, as he gazed off through his pipe smoke, he was destroyed when he came home and discovered me and Mom gone (off to Tennessee). He contracted mononucleosis and ended up in bed for a month, hardly able to function—part virus, part devastation. When Mom called him two months later and said she wanted to come back, he was relieved and maybe even thrilled.
Dad thinks Mom left him about five times. Maybe she was escaping his violent temper, or maybe she was searching for excitement and love elsewhere, but when Dad tells the stories, you can still feel the sorrow of losing his wife and kids each time she left.
The last time she left, Dad came home from an overnight fishing trip with Grandpa and discovered the house was empty—Mom, David, and I were gone, probably in the roach-infested trailer she was renting on the backside of town. Eventually Dad would find us there. Maybe he heard from a fellow cop that Mom was downtown or at a bar. And maybe he checked on us. And maybe he found us sleeping, all alone. This time Dad filed for divorce, and soon after he moved from Cañon City to La Junta for a new police officer job. But he visited us as often as he could, taking lots of photos (on the hood of the Pinto, next to the tree in the front yard, David in Dad’s police motorcycle helmet) and once he brought us two pairs of coupled birds on a swinging perches, blue for David and yellow for me. The birds weren’t real, but the feathers were. The boy birds donned top hats and the girl birds wore bonnets, and in those moments, life was really, really good.
When I was forty-three, I asked Dad to tell me what he knew about the night David and I were hidden away. I told him what I’d pieced together and he said, “No, your mom didn’t bring you kids to me because of a pinched nerve from a car wreck. Your mom told me she was going to California with her boyfriend. She was gone for nine months.” He also said it was his lawyer’s idea to get us out of town so we weren’t there when Mom came to get us. He didn’t remember much more.
When I was forty-three, I asked my former stepmother over the phone what she remembered about that time. She said she drove us to Denver and we hid in a motel for three days before going to Grandma’s. She said she was in the secret sewing room with us. “I was only eighteen or nineteen and scared to death.” She said my dad was there with Grandma when Mom and the police knocked on the door. Maybe because Dad was a cop too, he got them to go away.
I don’t remember the stepmother being in the room and even though I believe her, I prefer to remember that night the way it formed in my mind as a child. Her version has all the fright, but none of the magic.
If Mom was gone for nine months then was it really more like a year before she signed the custody papers and we saw her?
What was Mom doing those three days we were hidden away in the Denver motel room?
Who is right?
1. The mother who leaves her children with their father because either
a) they are in a car wreck and she is injured and can no longer care for them
b) she is leaving to California to be with her boyfriend.
2. The father who has a stable job and a stable home and wants to keep his kids
a) at the father’s house the eighteen-year-old stepmother is not pleased to have two little children unexpectedly—she wasn’t counting on this, you know. She locks them out of the house from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. many days during the summer months when father is working.
b) they eat dinner every night and have breakfast every morning, and the kids don’t move every few months, and they each have a bedroom all to themselves
(and, most importantly)
c) the father never, ever leaves the children alone.
The saint and the sinner—who is whom?
We are both. We are neither.
Which came first?
The kidnapping or the abandonment or the reunion or the neglect or the protection? The wound or the scar? Selfishness, sacrifice, scars—they are hard to tease apart.
Who is the victim? The mother, the father, the girl, the boy, the stepmother, the grandmother?
Now and then parents forsake their children, leaving them to follow the bread crumbs to find their way back home. Hansel and Gretel learned the hard way that bread crumbs are no more help navigating the dark forest than relying on memory. Trails, like memories, can lead in all kinds of directions or just disappear altogether.
One world existed where a sweet grandma (in collusion with her son and his wife and their lawyer) rescued her beloved grandchildren from a young, poor, irresponsible mother. A mother who didn’t always keep them fed and clean, who didn’t always give them the stability they needed, who didn’t understand the damage she would cause leaving them alone at night to cry for her.
In another, parallel tale, a beautiful, loving mother drove hours to get her children, only to find them not at their father’s house. And then the frantic, sad mother drove from La Junta to Littleton on a hunch that her babies were there with her ex-husband’s mother—an evil woman who loved her Cathy and David more than a grandmother should have—a witchy grandmother who would steal her little ones away and hide them in a secret sewing room. It’s a story of a desperate mother who brought the police to the grandmother’s house, crying and begging for her children to be returned. But in this story the mother didn’t get her babies back. The grandmother lied and said she didn’t have them.
But the little girl only knows her story. She felt protected and cared for by her father, and cherished and adored by her grandmother. The little girl grew up knowing unconditional love because her grandma always did what she could to turn the real world into a fairytale world—the good kind. The enchanting kind. There is no scary in sewing room, only orchestras and dancing and glowing lights. Oh, and true love’s kiss. Of course, there was true love’s kiss.
(or maybe not)