Make-Believing Normal

My family has never been normal. For awhile this bothered me. I wanted our family to be more like the Huckstables on the Cosby show or the Waltons. Instead, our family was more like the Adams Family.

We lived in a rickety,old mansion, left to my dad's church by an elderly spinster with a passive-aggressive streak. Who else would leave such an drafty albatross to keep her memory alive? She must have had issues because the house was a handiman's nightmare. Three stories and a basement. Five porches, two staircases, two living rooms, umpteen bedrooms, enough rats to populate New York City and cockroaches that could probably carry pianos on their backs.

We Flea Sisters thought this was just swell...that is, until we realized the roaches weren't kittens. We loved the ancient wicker chairs that sat like green thrones on the many porches. We treasured the winding staircase to the attic, the unusual windows, the pink cabbage rose wallpaper in my bedroom, and the closet with the secret compartment that passed through to the "middle room," a room that divided the two halves of our house.

The Middle Room became our doll hospital, our school classroom, our make-believe library and on rare occasions, our upstairs T.V room.

We completely missed the fact that the place was cold and drafty in the winter. We didn't really notice the rats because we rarely went down into the spooky cellar with its dirt floor and clanging furnace.

But we did notice the formal gardens, complete with an ancient gardener, left behind by his former mistress. We loved the two outdoor fireplaces, one small and brick, the other huge and made of gray stone.

Once, after we'd been to see Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, I convinced my best friend to hold on to the handle of my mother's oversized umbrella and step out off the chimney of the tallest fireplace. I was just sure she would sail off on the breeze and fly...but not certain enough to try it myself.

We lived in a fantasy world of our own making. Becky was Pollyanna or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms. I was Cherry Ames, Student Nurse or Nancy Drew, Girl Detective. My brother was Batman or Robin or Ultraman. As our world grew crazier, we burrowed deeper into our created universe. It was like sticking our fingers in our ears and singing "Lalala!" at the top of our lungs, only more it lasted longer and was a more elaborate way of tuning out the unwanted realities of our existance.

Making believe made it easier to ignore the fact that Dad was working long hours, trying to meet the needs of his parish; or that our mother stayed upstairs in her darkened bedroom, always "sick" and rarely coming out into the daylight like the real moms did.

Playing make believe made it easier to look out into the audience at a school talent show or winter chorus performance and see only our dad and the housekeeper, Alice, sitting there, watching and clapping proudly.

I learned years later that the teachers and some of the other students assumed Alice was my mom and that I was bi-racial. All in all, not a bad alternative. Alice was always there and we loved her. Five days a week, she was the stern, caring presence who gave us boundaries and taught us how to survive alone.

Because a lot of the time we were really alone.

When Dad finally came home at night, we fell on him like starving orphans only to lose him to the voice down the hall, the one that demanded his continuous attention.

We could, the three of us, have felt sorry for ourselves...the poor minister's children with our mismatched clothing and bad haircuts. We could've stayed steeped in bitterness and languished on therapist's couches for a lifetime. But we didn't. What we got from Dad was enough to carry us through. No matter what else happened, we knew he did truly love us. If we really needed him, he would move mountains to reach us. But the rest of the time, we were on our own.

So, we became survivors...Warriors at times, pulling each other up and along, past the rough patches, out of danger and into the clearing where we could venture out to become whomever and whatever we wanted to be...because wasn't that what we had been doing all along anyway?

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