My parents split long before my memories could confirm it had ever been any other way. The two sisters I had were four and ten years older; by default I was either too little or too big of a pain to tag along. Surrounded by cornfields and gravel roads, my nearest friends lived over half-an-hour away. I visited them on holidays or saw them at church--playdates were rare, too much stress for my single Mom. Two boys lived next door. They treated me like blood brothers would, rescuing me from one peril (climbing too high up the tree fort tree) and delivering me gleefully into another (swooping bats from the mammoth pine tree in their front yard). And growing up at the tail end of the twentieth century left me with no social network to complain to about it all.
What did I do with all of my free time? I did what any desperate kid would have done in my situation: I used my imagination. Hour upon hour was whiled away in my basement serving never-ending droves of invisible diners who would hover around child-sized card tables at the renowned "Cactus Bay Restaurant". In the creepy-crawly recesses of the back storage closet, I would whip up light-as-air cuisine on my warped burnt orange kitchen set. This was where I first learned to answer phones, a skill I would take with me into adulthood. If only I could say as much for the cooking...
When life as the maitre d' of the Cactus Bay Restaurant became a drudgery, I morphed into a librarian, organizing a family's worth of books in the middle of the basement. It remained, more or less, organized until my parents remodeled a couple years back, undoing all of my hard work and tossing most of the books. At least I hadn't gotten more than five books into the card catalog system I'd dreamed up before deciding I wasn't thatbored. Librarians of the world, I salute..... zzzzz.
When it used to dump dozens of inches of the white stuff in Michigan, I'd bundle myself up and run around the yard. My shuffling footprints became paths, and the longer I played, the more places there were to discover. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. "Who's the crazy kid talking to herself over there all by herself?" "Oh, her. Whatever you do, don't make eye contact."
I played with a gaggle of Barbie dolls and the solitary (but insanely lucky) Ken doll. Barbie(s) and Ken fell in love; got in jealous, hair-pulling cat-fights with unsurprising frequency; awkwardly rode their palomino horse, Dallas, even though their rubber-snappy legs weren't really horse-worthy; and went swimming. Of course they went swimming! The only outfit I had for Ken was the shiny purple swim trunks he'd been wearing in the box. Out of pity for perpetually-underdressed Ken, there were an abundance of luaus. That was much easier than, gasp!, buying him a pair of pants. It was nearly the same with My Little Ponies, except they were already horses, so they didn't need to worry about being ill-designed to ride themselves. Interestingly enough, the ponies were all girls, as far as I could tell, but there were an awful lot of babies within the herd. No one ever explained that one to me, and I'm still wondering.
A family friend gave us an incredible handmade dollhouse that had been his daughter's when she was a young girl. It was the most magical thing I thought I'd ever laid eyes upon, and not a bit of it was made of plastic or blonde hair. There were still hair-pulling cat-fights, but those usually took place after sipping from a teeny mason jar of sweet tea while sitting on the wraparound porch, perusing miniature copies of The New Yorker. You know, like in real life.
During a particularly inventive time in my life, I collected Happy Meal toys. Besides the fact that they were way more awesome back then, I was fresh off my first read-through ofThe Indian in the Cupboard. In that classic book, the main character, a young boy named Omri, brings a toy Indian (and, eventually, other toys) to life by locking them in a magical cabinet. Well aware that magical toy-incarnating furniture was not easily located within K-Mart, I was hopeful that my cluttered bedroom closet would be the next-best-enchanted thing. At night I would lock up my plastic Miss Piggy figurine and tell myself that maybe in the morning she would be asking me to transform cold, lifeless Kermie, too. Of course, it never happened, and for that I'm probably thankful. A few decades later, I realize that I would have likely soiled myself in fear if I'd managed to bring life to any of the things I locked in that closet.
My extensive stuffed animal collection made up my entourage, headed up by the purple pony I named "Diamond" after a palomino mare Mom attempted to buy and promptly returned after she repeatedly walloped on our poor Tennessee Walker, Jake. Stuffed-animal Diamond managed to escape from a trip to Lost Toyville after she'd had the brilliant idea to hide in a twist of hotel sheets during a Wild West road trip. A nice maid rescued her, and she's been with me ever since. I still wonder how many miles my parents had to backtrack to the previous night's hotel just so I would stop howling.
Somewhere on the outskirts of my posse was my Cricket doll. After dad let me watch the first Chucky movie at the ripe old age of eight, she was banished to a black garbage bag in the corner of the basement. Rest in pieces, scary doll.
Being easily-amused has always had its advantages. I'd like to believe that having to rely so heavily on entertaining myself, especially in those years prior to my own pony, the goodness that was the Nintendo Entertainment System, and pretty much every single bit of technology we have now, I was preparing myself for something much bigger. My thoughts and feelings were solely mine then, not given a lot of chance to find a living, breathing audience. And even though I found a fairly reliable pressure-release valve the first time I put my leg over a horse, I also discovered that I'd taken on another role--counselor. By putting ink to paper, I learned to get it all out, because sometimes that was the only way I knew how. Some of those joys and hurts are still bottled up, others have made their way to the surface. Somehow writing for my therapy, my sanity, also became writing for my enjoyment... and, if you really think about it, maybe the two aren't all that different.