Monday’s Friend: Margaret Mendel
Today I’m pleased to have Margaret Mendel as my guest on the blog. Welcome, Margaret!
by Margaret Mendel
How cool! Today, I’m a guest blogger on Sara Jayne Townsend’s Monday Blog. I love the subtitle of her website, ‘Imaginary Friends’. My first response is, well, of course, writers have imaginary friends. Ah, but how far back do imaginary friends go? I do not believe they are the creation of adult minds. In fact, I think they have their origins in the imaginary play when authors were children.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think I was living with imaginary friends, I was just playing. Though looking at my childhood with a backstory angle, that’s exactly what I was doing, living in an imaginary world whenever I could. I grew up in the country. Schoolmates did not live close. My father worked all the time; mom didn’t drive, so that left my sisters and I to fill our world with the bits and pieces that tumbled out of our young minds.
The concept of imaginary relationships has frequently surfaced in my writing. It’s not the actual imagined people from my childhood that I remember, but the experience of living in another world, for an afternoon, for a few minutes, for long enough to have the situation resonate even many years later. Children take for granted their imaginary worlds. Make-believe is their play. Here is an excerpt from one of my short stories, “If I Die Before I Wake.” This story gives a brief look into where fantasy and reality mixed together in my childhood.
In the farthest corner of our backyard, on the border between our land and a quiet neighbor, a Maple tree thicket grew with long branches that jutted out like feather fans from a cluster of rotting stumps. The branches parted at one edge of the thicket, leaving an opening just big enough for my sister and I to squeeze through. Inside the thicket, the ground, soft and sunken like a huge bird nest, made a space sufficiently large enough for us to sit. Everything was exactly the right size. My sister and I would sit in this thicket, a magical hideout of leaves, branches, and secrets.
From this hiding place, we spied on Mom as she hung the wash or picked the dead leaves from her dahlias. A thin woman, Mom always looked as though she carried a load equal to her own weight in her arms, either the laundry, one of our two younger sisters, or the bushels of vegetables she dragged in from the garden for canning. She worked like an ant, always dragging, lifting or pushing something.
The dahlias were a different matter. To tend them she would actually tiptoe into her garden. My sister thought she did this to be quiet, but Mom said she did it to keep from packing down the soil. Once I saw Mom lift a blossom slowly, cupping the giant flower in both hands, as though she was looking into a face. She smiled. I thought she intended to kiss the bloom. A couple of times I saw her talking to her flowers. My sister didn’t see this, and said that Mom wouldn’t talk to flowers. My sister may have been right Mom did not have time to spend talking to flowers. She hardly had time to talk to us girls.
My sister and I never fought when we were in our hideout. We took turns cooking the twigs and leaves, serving these dinners in the palms of our grubby little hands. Usually, outside of this magical place, I wanted to tell my sister, who was fourteen months younger than I, what to do. In our hideout, I felt different; I felt softer and I could be taken care of, instead of having to be the boss. I could be the baby, my sister could be my mother, or we could both be lost children, huddled together, trying to outwit the wicked pretend witch in the gingerbread house.
The air inside our retreat smelled sweet with the juicy bark of twigs, dusty leaves, dead bugs, and rotting stumps. It was a perfume that made us feel welcomed. It was our air.
When I grew older — or maybe it began to happen when I grew taller and kept bumping my head on the low branches of the thicket — I began to feel as though I had become an intruder. About this same time my sister and I became bored with our make believe world. So I abandoned the hideout, my sister came with me, and our younger sisters took command of the retreat. We saw them poke their heads out through the branches, watching us as we walked down the road to run errands for Mom.
By the time I left the thicket, the musty odor of our make-believe world still in my hair, with my long skinny legs and low-slung, gangly arms, I looked more like a spider creature from the woods than a girl. My sister and I walked away from our childhood and headed towards our father’s world. It was a dark scary place. He listened to the news on the radio every night, informing us of every detail. The world was in a cold war, he said. No one was actually shooting at each other. “That,” he told us, “is just a matter of time.”
When I left the thicket, I began to seek other means of solitude. There was an apple tree on our property, a gnarly old thing that produced misshapen, but deliciously juicy fruit. It had a low-slung limb, perfectly situated to help hoist me up into the cradle of branches. I sat in that old tree many afternoons daydreaming. Those days of youthful solitude, of playing pretend worlds with my sister in the Maple tree thicket and sitting in an apple tree was probably the beginning of my writing life.
I have a sense of longing when I look back on those days. Nostalgia reinterprets the past and those alone times away from parents and siblings now seems magical.
As I write my novels and short stories I often wonder where the characters I create come from. My latest novel, PUSHING WATER, about an American woman in Vietnam in the late 1930s, came to me as I was reading about the history of Vietnam. But I wonder was there a seed of my protagonist, Sarah, growing many years ago in that Maple thicket where my sister and I lived in a magical world of our own? Some times I greet the characters that join me in my quiet moments at the computer as though we were old friends. There is something familiar about many of the characters that find their way into my writing. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s as though we were old friends. I wonder could the characters that now step into my short stories and novels be the characters that kept me company when I sat in that old apple tree? I like to think so. Are some of your characters really old friends from a childhood’s imagination?
Margaret Mendel lives and writes in New York City. She is an award-winning author with short stories and articles appearing online and in print publications. Her debut novel, “Fish Kicker” was published in 2014. Margaret’s latest novel “Pushing Water” was published in February 2017. She is a staff writer and photographer with the online magazine Kings River Life. Many of her photos have appeared in websites, online travel journals and book covers. Several of her photos have been exhibited in Soho Photography Gallery in New York City. Check out her photos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/margaretmendel/ You can read more about Margaret and her writing at: Pushingtime.com.
Her latest novel, PUSHING WATER, is now available from MuseItUp Publishing.