“Once upon a time, in a land far far away from here… in a place full of strange people and creatures unknown and unvisited, there lived…” From infancy, my gypsy life of wandering was charted at my mother’s knee. My crazy maze of shallow roots, if such they can be called, need be traced no further than my grandparents to accept that I was born to roam.
On my father’s side, we were reasonably stable—South African. My mother’s? As wildly wonderful as the fairy tales she told us and the books she read to us. She was American—first generation. Her father—a German Jew—at age 13 had stowed away on a ship from Hamburg to New York. Her mother, a pregnant British beauty queen of Welsh descent, had lost her fiancé in the first World War and in searching for a new life, had sailed to New York. At least this is the story we were told and in the absence of any burden of proof, it’s the one that sticks. On the docks she had met my grandfather who had secured himself work cleaning ships. Ships from all over the world and from his stories of these ships, I had my first glimpse into the habits of other peoples.
From the time my sister and I were born in Canada, we travelled. First to the U.S. to visit our family, then finally to South Africa which was to become our home for the next 50 years. And still we travelled. My father, a minister of religion, had decided that while healing the soul was good, the body often needed more care and he took himself off to university to study medicine. This meant giving up his full-time congregation and he became an evangelist preaching all over the country on weekends, dragging his often recalcitrant girls with him.
Some of the journeys were extremely long and iPads hadn’t yet been invented… Steve Jobs having only been newly minted. While I could and still can read anywhere in anything moving or stagnant, my mother and sister couldn’t. My father for obvious reasons had to keep his eyes on the road and car games and stories were how we whiled away the long miles.
“Girls, that car that just passed us… make, colour, number plate, occupants—how many, what were they wearing… what colour was the flower we just passed, describe the hill, did you see that animal in the veld?” grew our attention to the immediate and honed our ability to grab at the finest detail within seconds taking mental photographs of everything. It also taught us to be able to retell situations with minute recall. Great for witnesses, not so great in “he said, she said” situations when the knock-out in a marital argument came with “You did sa … we were standing here, you were wearing… I was wearing… you were doing… I was doing… you had this in your hand, I was stirring porridg … I said, then you said…” and the white flag of surrender didn’t necessarily mean peace.
And it was “Once upon a time…”—especially Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree series about the Enchanted Woods and the Faraway Tree covered with fruit of all kinds and inhabited by fairy-folk. Its topmost branches lead to ever-changing magical lands above the swirling clouds that the children visited and sometimes got lost in for a while until the land returned to the top of the tree and they could scramble their way back home that uprooted this willow and continuously throughout a lifetime replants it for short spans in strange lands.
Its name is the Enchanted Wood-and it is enchanted. And oh, Dick, in the middle of it is the most wonderful tree in the world!”
“What sort of tree?” asked Dick, feeling quite excited.
“It’s a simply enormous tree,” said Jo. “Its top goes right up to the clouds-and oh, Dick, at the top of it is always some strange land. You can go there by climbing up the top branch of the Faraway Tree, going up a little ladder through a hole in the big cloud that always lies on the top of the tree and there you are in some peculiar land!”
“I don’t think I believe you,” said Dick. “You are making it all up.”
“Dick! We’ll take you there and show you what we mean,” said Bessie.
“It’s all quite true. Oh, Dick, we’ve had such exciting adventures at the top of the Faraway Tree. We’ve been to the Rocking Land, and the Birthday Land.”
“And the Land of Take-What-You-Want and the Land of the Snowman,” said Fanny. “You just can’t think how exciting it all is.”
“And, Dick, all kinds of queer folk live in the trunk of the Faraway Tree,” said Jo. “We’ve lots of good friends there. We’ll take you to them one day. There’s a dear little fairy called Silky, because she has such a mass of silky gold hair.”
“And there’s Moon-Face, with a big round face like the moon! He’s a darling!” said Bessie.
“And there’s funny old Mister Watzisname,” said Fanny.
“What’s his real name?” asked Dick in surprise.
“Nobody knows, not even himself,” said Jo. “So everyone calls him Mister Watzisname. Oh, and there is the old Saucepan Man. He’s always hung around with kettles and saucepans and things, and he’s so deaf that he always hears everything wrong.”
Dick’s eyes began to shine. “Take me there,” he begged. “Quick, take me! I can’t wait to see all these exciting people.”
I have seen many Mister Watzisnames, I have been to the real Land of the Snowman, and Birthday Land, met many queer folk and there are many more exciting people I can’t wait to see. My mother grew me into a gypsy with a love of everything new and different. My father grew me into a keen observer and fact finder. My home is The Magic Faraway Tree and once upon a time is now.
And so I have grown my children… with a thirst to go see and experience and learn and appreciate and accept. And so they are growing theirs. How are you growing yours?