Let me introduce you to a friend.
Wa-Wa is a small, blue person who fits nicely in the palm of a child’s hand. My daughter, Rainbow Girl, invented her when she was two. One afternoon, she pulled Wa-Wa from her pocket and held her out, invisible, for our inspection. Her tone was matter-of-fact. Wa-Wa simply was.
At first, Wa-Wa lived in pockets and palms. She slept in a small jewelry box on the bedside table. It didn’t take long, however, for her to gain momentum.
Soon enough, Wa-Wa was a force with which to reckon, tornadic in her impact. She crashed trucks — up to a dozen a day. In her presence vehicles soared into the air and then plummetted, hard and fast, into every sort of object. At age two, Rainbow Girl found crashing trucks to be rather hysterical. Most of the time, my little girl was quiet, steady, and a good listener. Wa-Wa was not.
Wa-Wa was reckless, irreverent, disobedient. She was never mildly naughty. No, Wa-Wa was shred-the-clouds-and-paint-the-moon-fuscia WILD. She delighted in lunatic adventures. She followed no rules, listened to no admonitions. Rainbow Girl had found her alter ego.
She didn’t stop there. A few months later, Rainbow Girl got a new baby sister. Shortly after, we met Zooka-Zooka, another pocket-sized cataclysm in motion. Like Wa-Wa, she delighted in thievery and wanton binges of exuberant destruction.
Those two were always in trouble, but they never got caught. They made their getaways in the famous crashing truck. It could fly. It had ice-cream dispensers. And closets full of toys. Frankly, at one point, there was nothing that truck couldn’t do. I was stuck in a Subaru, safe and reliable, while my daughter cavorted with imaginary hooligans.
Of course, I was thrilled.
The story was always changing. Wa-Wa and Zooka-Zooka woke up one day with an older, wiser sister named Juicy. Now there were three devotees of hilarious havoc. Sometimes Juicy was a moderating presence, the cool (and often nagging) head of discipline. (Every untamed tale, every imprudent adventure, is more interesting with a foil.) Sometimes Juicy leaped into mutinous behavior, jumped the truck and joined the revelry.You could never tell.
There was only one constant. All three creatures were more feral, more untamed in every way than their creator. Rainbow Girl was sensitive. She was shy. Her inventions were not.
Now, at age seven, Rainbow Girl has absorbed the hearts of that terrorizing trio, their ferocity and spunk. They’ve transferred from her pocket to her soul.
She is a dervish in everything she tries, a passionate adventurer. She can dance to Offenbach’s Can-Can for hours. (That song will never leave my head.) When the puppy tries to climb, wet and slippery, from the tub, it reduces Rainbow Girl to hysterics. I swear she can tell jokes non-stop for entire car rides. Long ones.
For a few years, Wa-Wa, Zooka-Zooka, and Juicy faded into the background. We didn’t hear from them often. I imagine they had their share of adventures.
Now, they are making a comeback in the wake of little sister Boo-Monkey’s burgeoning imagination. Boo is five, and she has recently rediscovered a lost companion — Henry the Hippo, a compatriot with an unusual history.
The truth is, I invented Henry, years ago, when Boo Monkey was two or three. At that age, she hated being alone and cried a fit if I left the room. Unlike her older sister, she had never been an “only.” There was always someone else — mama, daddy, sister, aunt. Still, the avalanche of tears she unleashed if I walked into the hallway was . . . grating on my nerves, let’s say.
So I invented Henry one night and presented him as an offering, a token. With Henry the Hippo (I believe she chose the species), she would never be entirely alone. I could almost hear her thoughts click-clacking: “Is it a trick? Is this woman crazy? Why would I exchange the warm body of Mama for . . . an invisible Hippo?” Okay, I admit it wasn’t my best-laid plan. Sleep-deprivation will make a Mama do all sorts of crazy things. I’m sure the invention of Hippos is not the weirdest on the list.
Henry was an on-again, off-again visitor for a few months, and then he disappeared. Boo Monkey lost interest. Until last week. “Remember my friend, the hippo?” Yes, in fact I did. And, just like that, Henry was back.
But Henry isn’t Henry anymore. Henry is now a girl Hippo, and her name is Henna. She is purple with pink polka dots and, though she is not small enough to fit inside a pocket, she will happily sit on Boo Monkey’s lap. Or her head — though Boo-Monkey says that a Hippo on her head gives her quite a headache. She’ll have to work that out.
In any case, Henna’s adventures do not involve crashing trucks. She likes to wear her polka-dot leotard and go to her gymnastics class. Today, she is having tea with the queen. I believe her dress is striped. Sometimes Henna pees and poos in inappropriate places because Boo-Monkey, unlike the more serious Rainbow Girl, loves potty humor. (That one comes from me too. All the bad habits do.)
I must admit to loving Henna, to missing Wa-Wa and Zooka-Zooka and Juicy and their madcap, roaring truck. Years ago, parents used to worry that imaginary friends indicated a lack or absence in a child’s life. Now we know that isn’t true. Imaginary friends are just plain fun.
I could have told you that.
As a writer, I never outgrew the impulse to reinvent the real, to blow life into fantasy and make it twirl and gallop. My characters follow me everywhere, clamouring their quirks, unraveling their passions, offering up their complicated histories with a challenge: “What can you do with that?” I love nothing better than taking them on, weaving and welding the fragments together. Sometimes they clash and crash like Wa-Wa’s careening truck, splattering ink and bits of story, pieces tumbling out.
Someday Boo will tire of Henna the Hippo, and we’ll hear less and less about her fashion statements, her preference for sushi and watermelon, her gymnastics. I hope it isn’t soon, especially now that Wa-Wa, Zooka-Zooka, and Juicy have come back. Such lovely little beings, dancing pirouettes of fantasy, sparking up the hours.
When my kids do outgrow their imaginary friends, I’ll house them all in a spare room of my brain. They’ll keep company with other avatars of disarray, the uncivilized hearts of childhood. Perhaps Henna will hop in Wa-Wa’s truck for a race along the Great Wall of China or a rocket-ride to the moon. Zooka-Zooka will show up with stolen pirate treasure, swords and witchy hats. Juicy will bring the lemonade and ice cream.
Who knows where they will push me, what stories they’ll inspire? I hope they’ll give my characters another course in wildness, in unpredictable behavior and irreverent undertakings. Certainly, in the midst of my snapping synapses, they’ll never be alone, up there.
No, I will house them and preserve them. When my daughters are older, they’ll have these stories to remember. They’ll have the imprints and footprints of creatures they invented as they reinvented themselves. They will have that residue of levity, confidence and joy — all gifts of imaginary friends. They will have the blessing of seeing past what is and into what might be.
Still, when they turn sixteen, I hope they will have forgotten all the crashing trucks. My insurance doesn’t cover small blue people or Hippos wearing tutus.
How about you? Fess up — did you ever have an imaginary friend? Do your kids? How does imagination help unwind your hours?