Our bedroom was an attic, probably 32 feet in length, and seven or eight feet wide. A chimney neatly bisected the space, so our dad installed a plywood panel next to it, just wide enough for the heads of our twin beds. There was no door between us. We each had our own room, but slept with heads only inches apart. I waited for my sister to ask, “Do you want to play?” I always said yes. We would lay in the dark and spin out our fantastical imaginary worlds for hours.
Sometimes I wondered. Would we ever stop our childhood play?
When we were younger in Claremont and then Aberdeen, we mostly played with toys, but purely imaginative play was on the roster quite early. My brother and sister started by pretending to be the Beatles. I joined in as soon as I was allowed to. I couldn’t wait to be Ringo. My brother was John, my sister was George, and no one wanted to be Paul.
This game was straightforward. While the 45 played, so did we, lip-syncing along to the lyrics and pretending to play instruments. When the song was over, so was the play. This evolved into playing at being The Monkees. I immediately claimed Davy. My sister was Mickey, and my brother was Mike. No one wanted to be Peter.
Then, the summer I was nine, we discovered “Tommy.” When you hand three musical, imaginative, socially awkward kids a record like “Tommy,” it will eventually change everything. First, laying the groundwork I guess, we learned every note of this rock opera, every single note. We even sang all the instruments. The plot was weird as hell, and none of us saw character potential in the deaf, dumb, and blind boy. But we loved the work itself, and it went to work in us.
We lived in Rapid City for less than a year. Mom had moved us there to start her teaching career, and to finish it, as it turned out. She met a young Air Force captain and married him six weeks after their first date. We all moved to Edina. There, in our first Edina house, my sister met a charismatic girl named Sue. And did Sue ever have an imagination.
Sue wanted us to play Star Trek. We divvied up the characters and played plots from the show itself, or made up our own. When Sue wasn’t around, we let my brother in on the game. Steve was Spock, my sister was Doctor McCoy, and I kept up my run of short brunette men with accents by playing Ensign Chekhov. No one wanted to be Kirk.
Then, Sue and my sister saw the movie Oliver! They dragged me to it, and that was that. We entered the seamy London underground of Dickensian London and barely came up for air. We all wanted to be Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger, but there were three of us and only one of him. I didn’t ever get to be him, but there was this other pickpocket kid with reddish hair and a green cap who seemed acceptable. I could handle being him when we played. No one wanted to be Oliver.
I hate to admit it, but a big part of this game was going to the Southdale Mall and shoplifting. We were Fagin’s crew, and we had to steal. Thankfully, before any of us were apprehended, Sue’s family moved to Bellevue and we moved to another neighborhood in Edina.
This was a posh neighborhood, especially for South Dakota kids. My sister made friends, I made frenemies. My brother suffered initially, but he joined a track-car racing club where he made friends with a boy named Dave and a British kid named Chris (who would go on to lead Prince’s Paisley Park studio). My brother had real friends, he didn’t want to play. So it was my sister and I, escaping to Dickensian London and stealing at the mall on the regular.
We were never going to make a go of it in Edina, so it was time to re-invent our lives. My stepdad joined the Forest Service and adopted us so we could all have the same last name, and health benefits. A newly united family, we moved to Arkansas.
As I’ve written about before, the only rental we could find was a wretched little house on an abandoned farm, miles outside Booneville on red dirt roads. That isolation drove all three of us kids back to “Tommy.” We couldn’t leave that record alone. Inspired by our deep love of music and the intensity of imaginative play we’d experienced with Sue, the three of us morphed our previous endeavors into a game called “Band.”
“Band” was the best. We could literally be any musicians. Cat and I were deeply into our teen idols, and our brother had more mature musical taste. This led to some strange musical bedfellows, like John Lennon and David Cassidy. Disparities of style didn’t matter, because we were always lip-syncing to either Jefferson Airplane or The Who.
I remember one night when my parents had gone out for coffee (quite a trek, in Arkansas), and we were engrossed in our play. My sister was rolling around on the coffee table, mouthing the words to “Somebody to Love” while Steve and I backed her up on our air instruments. My parents came in quietly—or maybe not so quietly, the stereo was loud—and watched us for a moment before I saw them. The looks on their faces. I let my sister continue her bit before I broke out laughing, and then we were all roaring.
I imagine my parents were proud.
A move into Booneville proper lessened our isolation. In this tiny town, which probably had a sundown law, our young lives were full of friends, school, parties, and more. Our older brother (who had outgrown our play once we left the farm) excelled academically and musically. Despite the weight that had inspired so much mockery when he arrived, he was accepted, even celebrated at Booneville High. The year I started seventh grade, he left for art school in Minneapolis.
My younger brother was a few months old at this time. My sister and I were both in high school, which started in 7th grade in Booneville. I loved changing classes, flirting with senior boys in the hallways, having an actual study hall, and singing in the high school choir. My sister was kind enough to absorb me into her friend group. We were very happy.
Even with all we had going on, my sister and I found time to spin out our worlds.
Glam rock had entered the pop culture consciousness. We might have pinned up photos of David Bowie in drag and Mick Jagger in eyeliner, but we weren’t going to use those men as characters. They were far too combustible.
We stuck to the Partridge Family and (for me) teen Jack Wild, still short with a Cockney accent, but mature. I added a new character based on Rick Springfield—the “Speak to the Sky” Rick, young, brunette, with sky-high hair and (you guessed it) an Aussie accent.
No matter how happy my sister and I were, my parents hated Booneville. I do not blame them. They only had two couples as friends; Anne and Tom, and this extremely cool couple, Wayne and Mag. My parents were liberals, and educated, and they were claustrophobic.
So it was time for the rest of us to move again, this time to Montana. This move, toward the end of my seventh grade year, was wrenching and harsh. I transformed from a happy, active star student to a social outcast on my first day at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, by the simple act of my teacher giving me a more advanced English workbook. It wasn’t just a higher level than the other seventh graders were using. It was a higher level than the eighth graders were using.
That bit of seventh grade was over swiftly. I turned thirteen, school let out, and summer started. We were living on a ranger station, which remains the most isolated place I have ever lived. Aside from Ranger Dick and his wife Jane (who was always after us to babysit), we had no neighbors, no friends, no way to get anywhere to do anything at all. What else was there to do but play?
Since we were older, the games became sneakier. There were times we played during the day on weekends or in the summer, but mostly, we saved our imaginary world for night. There, in the dark, hidden away from the realities of daily life, our peculiar recombinations made sense.
Rich material arrived in the early 1970s, just begging to be incorporated. Cat Stevens transported us with his tortured, gorgeous voice. We kept the orphan thieves from Oliver! and added Cat Stevens as a grown-up version of the Artful Dodger, valiantly trying to overcome his childhood as a pickpocket.
This play had two versions, because sometimes Dodger was young and still picking pockets, and sometimes, he was a stunning troubadour pouring out his tortured soul in music. We wrote down a lot of it with Susan’s help. She still lived in Bellevue, and she and my sister traded pages all the time in the mail. One summer, Sue came out to visit us, and that was incredible. Sue brought us a present.
She brought us Jesus.
You know, the musical.
Jesus Christ Superstar landed like manna from heaven. It was kind of mature for us, seeing as how it was based on works that were thousands of years old. We were not Jesus and Judas when we played, we were the actors working on the production.
We learned this soundtrack by heart, too, and saw the movie at least a dozen times so we could learn every twitch and scowl of the actors. Neither of us knew a thing about how a movie was made, but this didn’t stop us from imagining ourselves into the Israeli desert in our dusty cotton costumes, being temperamental and difficult while the director raged.
Sadly, no one had an accent in this movie. I was Ted Neely and my sister was Carl Anderson. No one wanted to be Yvonne Elliman.
Trying to describe our play at this point starts to sound like trying to recount a dream. It all made perfect sense to us, but you’re going to have to bear with me.
Even with the bearded hippy boys of Superstar, and the rich vein of masculine suffering offered by Cat Stevens, our favored game was called “PF on ST.” This stood for Partridge Family on Star Trek (I cracked up typing that). But we loved Star Trek, and we loved The Partridge Family, so we came up with the idea of the “Teen Academy” boarding school on board the Starship Enterprise.
We spent hours going through magazines, choosing what our characters looked like and what they would wear. Well, my sister did. She was either Keith Partridge or a character named Ceci. Ceci had an amazing teen girl wardrobe culled from the pages of Seventeen. I preferred being a boy, so I was generally either Jack Wild or Rick Springfield.
We both played independently during the day. When I felt insecure or unsafe, I would slip into character in school, as would my sister when she felt alone. I suppose if we’d had cell phones back then, we’d have texted in character, but we were reduced to writing notes.
If we wanted to play together at the dinner table, we used verbal shorthand to suggest the idea to each other. Speaking in code words, we could pick our game, announce our characters, and assign roles to our family members. Our baby brother even had roles to play.
When he came home from art school, our older brother sat at the table and knew we were playing. It drove him nuts, and we risked discovery, or even worse, mockery. So we tried to keep our play in the dark, as in, we played at night.
We would lie there, inventing romances, assigning talents, changing appearances, having long conversations and arguments in the voices of our characters. These were the happiest hours of our troubled young lives.
I wish I could remember more of the plots we spun, but in truth, they were pretty standard high school plotlines. The students would have trouble with a teacher. The students would have trouble with a Star Fleet officer. The students would have trouble with each other. We liked drama.
We both despised Bobby Sherman (I have no idea why), so once in a while, he’d show up on deck and throw everyone into a dither. Occasionally, a new student would arrive at the academy via shuttlecraft. Then everyone would have trouble with everyone else. It didn’t matter if the new arrival was male or female, because anyone could be problematic to a group of teenagers trapped on the Enterprise.
A concert was often in the works, because of course Keith Partridge had to sing. For the record, Cat Stevens was far too mature to be a student at the Teen Academy of PF on ST, but he might have made a concert appearance now and then. I’m also remembering that the Enterprise transported a movie crew to a dusty planet for the filming of Jesus Christ Superstar more than once.
It’s been fifty years. The specifics are a little misty. But I do remember how absurdly chaste most of these imaginings were. Occasionally there was a romance, but rarely. That was too much for our young psyches to handle.
Today, there is a vocabulary for activities similar to what we were doing. There is fan fiction, with all its shipping. Also, LARPing (though we never costumed ourselves, we were certainly out and about in character). The problem with naming something is that it creates parameters. We had no parameters. We had no name besides “play,” so our freedom was complete. It was our private world, created from anything and everything, and hidden because we knew how strange it was, and we were way too old for what we were doing.
But we needed to play. We were two girls in our early teens, living on a ranger station in the middle of a national forest. The entire family was jammed into a one-bedroom log cabin, from which we’d carved extra bedrooms from the attic and a storage pantry. There was never any money, and our parents’ marriage was always precarious. We had to babysit our baby brother all the time while they drove off to have coffee and work on it. Everyone in the family was miserable. None of that mattered while we played.
Yes, we lived in a verdant paradise, I recognize that. I climbed the mountain behind our house several times, and explored the riverbanks, and sat on a cold cement bridge over the icy foam of the Gallatin River, and sang my heart out. But when it was winter—and this was Montana, so it was often winter—there was nothing to do and nowhere to go.
So my sister and I made up a different paradise. We invented characters that were nothing like us, and brought them to life in an outer space world. We made up the teenaged lives we longed for, there on the ranger station in western Montana. No wonder we couldn’t leave our play behind.
Time, space, and basic logic were ours to manipulate. We sometimes played all night, only stopping when it was light out. When one of us (usually me) got too tired and began falling asleep, the other would ask, “Should we keep this?” Because that was a key part of playing. We could spin out an extreme plot, with someone getting lost on a planet or even dying, but we didn’t have to keep it. We reserved the right to discard the night’s play. It was a joint decision. We might keep part of the play, all of it, or none of it. It was all up to us.
I don’t know how long we would have kept it up, but at some point, our “real lives” began to take shape. We still didn’t have any money, we still lived in a remote and beautiful location, but we had some friends. My sister got her license, and my parents bought a second car (a tiny red slug bug) so we started having misadventures in Bozeman. It was terrifying and exhilarating.
She was sixteen and I was fourteen. We drank, smoked pot, gained boyfriends, lost virginities. Breakups. Pregnancy scares. Car accidents. We had plenty of drama. There was no need to lay there in the dark and imagine more.
Life was complicated when you weren’t allowed to decide whether or not to keep what had happened to you. But I remember one last night when I sheepishly asked my sister to play. We had one last session, one last trip to the galaxies. Then we gave it up forever. Real life had taken over.
When I was thirty-seven, I quit my job and decided to go back to school and finish my degree. A friend showed up at my house with an ancient Mac. “You’ll need this for papers,” she told me, as she and her husband set up the whole hateful thing. I’d never owned a computer, in fact I loathed computers, and had only used one when I worked in a B2B telemarketing agency. But hey, she was probably right. I was going back to school, and I probably needed to have a computer. So I sat down and opened up a document and entered a state of magical creative flow.
I wrote a screenplay first. It was based on a dream I had at age nineteen that had haunted me ever since about a woman with two daughters at the Oregon coast, and a teacher she rented to. It had been the most cinematic dream of my life, and I’d tried and failed to make something out of it all through my twenties and thirties.
At 37, that finally changed. It wasn’t hard to imagine all the conversations and settings and drama. But 115 pages? That wasn’t enough time to spend with these characters who had become so real to me. I wasn’t done with them. I started typing out notes in each character’s voice. And more and more came, and the plot changed, and deepened. It took hold and grew.
I sat up later and later each night, typing in my darkened home. This was my only time to write, because I was a single mother with three kids and two dogs and a house to keep and a divorce to recover from. The demands on my life were constant from before the sun rose to after it went down. During these late night hours of quiet and dark, I found the peace and solitude I needed to get it all out of me.
Before I knew it, I had the draft of a novel. I was so proud of this messy first draft, and absolutely sure it was perfect. Of course it wasn’t even close to finished. But I printed it out and sent it to my sister, who lived in South Dakota at the time. She loved it. How could she not? A tortured, beautiful man. An icy, withholding older woman. And teen drama galore.
She called me to rave. “I can’t believe you did this.” She kept questioning me as to where I’d gotten this idea, “This isn’t you is it? This isn’t me?” I explained to her that this was truly fiction. Everyone was made up. “Well I love it. I’m so proud of you.” And she hung up.
She called me back within the half hour. “I figured it out,” she said. “I figured out how you did it.” I waited. I could hear the smile in her voice. “You’re playing.”
I hope she could hear the smile in mine when I told her she was absolutely right.
My sister and I have worked out a division of labor, as far as childhood memories. I ask questions, and she provides answers. It’s assumed that she remembers it all correctly. But recently, as we were talking about our Arkansas memories, I made an assertion about the past that generated an actual snort of derision from her.
Let me explain.
In March of 1971, we moved to Arkansas so my dad could begin his career in the Forest Service. Booneville is up in the northwestern corner of the state, in a region that’s below sea level. I think. This is what I was told and I’ve never done any research to back it up. The hot soup of humidity we swam through was evidence enough for me.
It certainly felt like we were living underwater.
On arrival, we stayed in a motel; three kids in one room, my parents in another. I was just barely 11, my sister was 13, and my brother was 16. It was too hot to breathe without air conditioning, so we kids stayed in our dingy little motel room and started fights with each other while Mom and Dad went out each day to try to find us a place to live.
They couldn’t find one. That same spring, a small toy factory had opened, and it lured in workers from around the state. All the rentals had been taken.
We were used to moving at that point, I guess, but we’d always moved from one house to another house. Motels were never involved. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a motel in Booneville, Arkansas, pop. 3200 or something like that.
They finally drove us all out to see a tattered little farm in the country with a house on it: a one-story six-room rectangle that had sat empty for quite a while. It appeared to be right on the verge of falling over. There was no obvious sign of vandalism, but it was filthy. There was (biggish) poop in the kitchen sink, and invasive greenery growing around the window frames and into the rooms.
Six rooms, no hallway. This is not the house, but it reminds me of the house. Good times.
To give you an idea of how desperate my parents were to get out of that motel, they rented this place. They rented it despite the fact that it was miles out of town on a red dirt road. They rented it despite the rotting outbuildings that included an outhouse. And, most importantly, they rented this dump despite the fact that in just a few short months, they’d be welcoming a newborn baby.
The rent was delivered, the keys were ours, and we all pitched in to make the place habitable. Understand, my parents could transform anywhere into a home. Even this place. They weren’t ever going to buy it, so this was basically just a cover up job. Paint over the peeling plaster, lay down indoor/outdoor carpet in the kitchen and bathroom, deep-clean the linoleum floors in the rest of the house. What couldn’t be painted was papered. Somehow, they made this leaning, crumbling little wreck of a house into a place we could live.
Even though that house was tiny and terrible, I found interesting things to consider about it. I was fascinated by the idea of a home with no hallway. If you came in via the back door, you entered the kitchen and began your circuit. Counter clockwise, it went: kitchen to bathroom to first bedroom to second bedroom room to living room to dining room and back into the kitchen. Or you could go clockwise and go kitchen, dining room, living room, second bedroom, first bedroom, bathroom, kitchen.
And if you’re a kid, which I was, you can’t wait to make the circuit while running, even though running in the house was verboten.
The farm itself held places of additonal interest. There were the outbuildings, which we were forbidden to enter. I explored them at length. One shed was full of empty moonshine bottles and wasps’ nests. I picked up a lot of bottles in there, and kicked my way through rotten hay in a tiny building that was possibly a barn, and I avoided the outhouse.
There was a stock pond that I was forbidden to go near. I picked my way to it through fields of ancient cow pies, to stand at the bank and consider wading in. Those cow pies made me squeamish about what the bottom might be like. There was a clear creek, where I spent hours watching water bugs skate on its surface, and trying cross it by walking on fallen logs. It was shallow and swift. I could walk across it without getting very wet, but those logs were always beckoning me. I fell into that creek a lot, that first summer.
The photo below is not that creek, but it’s how I remember it.
It was these neighbors my sister and I were discussing the other day. We were remembering how, during a visit from her Minneapolis friend, Salle, we climbed out our bedroom window and walked across acres of pasture to a neighboring farm, where we picked up our friend Deena (who had also climbed out her bedroom window) to join us for a terrifying midnight walk.
I’ll save the full story of the midnight walk for another time, but my sister started talking about Deena’s family. “God, they were trashy,” she said. “Just utter trash. They had those milk cows, and they’d get into skunkweed, and I remember sitting at their table during dinner, dreading when I’d have to drink that horrible milk.”
I was puzzled. Yes, that milk was awful, but I remembered this family very differently. I started talking about what I remembered, like how their ranch house had three levels and two hallways, and a dining room where we were periodically invited for glasses of icky fresh milk. Their barn was huge, and full of cows. I watched the kids milk those cows and strain the buckets into big milk containers, to get the flies out. And there were horses, because the kids all rode.
And swimming! “They had that lake,” I said to my sister. “Don’t you remember that private lake they had?” It was small, and Arkansas green, but that water was cool enough to make the heat bearable.
I described the six kids; two (now nameless) older teenage boys who struck me as impossibly alluring and breathtaking. They barely said a word to us, but when they did, it was indulgent and kind. Deena, at age thirteen, had long dark hair and a perfect figure, though her legs were a little bowed because these kids were always on horseback.
Those were the original kids, and then there were three adopted kids; Stacey, Mark, and Donna. Stacey was 12, Mark was 11, and Donna was somewhere between eight and ten (too young to hang out with us). They were nice-looking kids on the cusp of looking like whatever they were going to look like; a trio of siblings who had found a home with our neighbors.
I remember the boys explaining that they’d been adopted fairly recently. We’d also been adopted recently by my mom’s third husband, but our mother had forbidden us to tell anyone. Mom didn’t need to put the fear of God into us about it. I never mentioned being adopted, not because Mom wanted it that way, but because I was ashamed. The pride that my new father wanted me was overshadowed by the fact that my other father hadn’t. I’d been given away, which left me feeling unwanted, defective, and deeply ashamed.
And here were these boys, proudly talking about how they’d been able to choose new names as part of their adoption.
I reminded my sister of all this. Well, I didn’t mention that shame part, because I assume she carries as much lifelong trauma as I do, but I did remind her about the neighbor kids picking out new names.
“And do you remember that even though we lived on neighboring farms, they went to school in some other town?” I asked her. “And in that town, wherever it was, the mom had a clothing store that she called ‘The DeenaDonna Boutique’? Don’t you remember that?”
“Oh my God, the DeenaDonna Boutique. I do remember.” My sister stopped laughing, and went a little quiet. “You remember more than I do,” she said. “That’s not how it usually is. I’m the one who usually…”
I interrupted her, “Of course I remember them. Stacey was my first boyfriend.”
My sister let out that previously mentioned snort of derision. “He was not your first boyfriend!”
“He sure was. Don’t you remember? I liked Mark at first, but Stacey was the one who asked me to be his girlfriend.” I went on to describe how that summer, Stacey and I would tie up the party line. Irritated older women would pick up and scold us to get off the phone.
My sister seemed to remember most of these details, but she still searched her memory for the idea that I’d had a boyfriend. She brought up the horses. “We rode horses with them all the time. You and I rode on the back, behind Deena.” Her voice was trailing off at this point. I could feel her remembering.
“No, you rode behind Deena, and I rode behind Mark or Stacey. Remember when I was alone on Mark’s horse, and it started for the barn and I slid right off the back?” He’d gotten down and left me sitting behind the saddle, and I couldn’t reach the reins and didn’t know to grab the saddle horn. I was so afraid of horses after that, and I still am. “And don’t you remember that Stacey would ride over on his horse, and we’d ride out together, just him and me?”
I could hear her voice change, as those memories were resurrected from wherever they’d been hiding. No one in the family could forget my falling off that horse. “Maybe they weren’t as trashy as I remember,” she said.
For me and Stacey, that was the extent of our young romance; a summer of swimming, horseback rides, and tying up the party line with awkward, giggling phone calls. We never so much as held hands. It was pretty perfect. When school started, I stopped hearing from him. He probably found a new girlfriend at his school in whichever little town that was.
Later that school year, we moved out of the farm and into Booneville proper, where we crammed the six of us into another absolutely stupid living set up. I’ll save that for another time. I had a new boyfriend that year, and another after that, but I’ll save those boys for another time, too.
For now, I just want to talk about yesterday, when my sister finally accepted that in this case, my memories were correct: My first boyfriend, at age 12, was a boy named Stacey, who lived on a neighboring farm with three brothers and two sisters. His father ran that farm, and his mother owned a clothing store. Their home was large enough to hold six kids. Their barn was huge and full of valuable livestock. They had five farm dogs, chickens, a private lake, and more wonders than I probably knew, because I was eleven years old and didn’t pay attention to campers and boats and the like.
My sister, who was my daily companion on that farm, didn’t remember Stacey or anything else about our neighbors besides their stinky milk. I think it was that milk that made her remember this family as trashy, even though at the time, they lived like they lived, while our family of six rented a decrepit two-bedroom farmhouse where my parents slept in the dining room with our new baby brother.
Memory is a strange, strange thing. I’m glad that between the two of us, my sister and I can patch together our shared past. But it definitely takes the both of us to sort through and figure out what really happened.