The holiday season is a time of reflection for many of us. Memories from my childhood are knocking at the door of my brain these days. Here’s one I shall never forget.
Nor do I cease to wonder at the creativity of those of my generation, who grew up without television, computers, or fancy toys — and still had a wonderful childhood.
They didn’t always tell the story directly to me. They were cleverer than that! They often held lengthy conversations secretly, but within hearing range, knowing I was all ears, hanging on to every word. Their fantastic gift for on-the-spot ad-libbing would be the envy of any performer, for I truly doubt any of this was pre-arranged.
Bored with whatever mischief they were up to, and realizing their dumb kid-sister was nearby, they would fall into their routine. No practice necessary.
“Shirley, what are you going to wear to the ball tonight?” or “You really looked great in your gold gown last night, Pauline,” or “Wasn’t King George splendid in his navy outfit — so very handsome… Sigh…”
The other sister would immediately pick up the ball and fall in with whatever came to mind. They would discuss what they wore, where they went, with whom and how — all in lavish detail, romantic happenings and attentions given them by the most aristocratic gentlemen, or the vilest crimes they saw committed and participated in. Whatever their young minds could conjure up — and oh, they could!
The story was that each night (of course after I was asleep), these two went out “on the town”. The door to their glittering world of princes and balls and gowns (or murders) was through the rat-hole behind the commode in our bathroom. Their huge wardrobes which I insisted they didn’t have, they claimed, were hidden behind the wall of the hallway closet where the family’s real hand-me-downs hung and only they had the ability to get to them. This was all accomplished with the use of magic words only they knew, and which they would never share with the likes of me. I was too undeserving….
Their escorts on these excursions, “Cookoo” and “Dummie”, (and I was too young and naive to find anything unusual about these names) possessed unlimited powers. It was possible for the four of them to attend functions at Buckingham Palace in London together and for the girls to be back in their beds by morning. The very next night they could attend a bull fight in Spain, join the matador at a gala victory party, then stash their fantastic clothing behind the closet wall in the hallway, and again be back by morning.
The poor things, they’d complain they were exhausted because they had romanced all night with their “boyfriends”. And their feet ached from continuously dancing in silver/gold slippers to every single dance. After all, they WERE the belles of the ball.
Cookoo and Dummie were at times, and all at once, ghosts, boyfriends, devils, princes and horrid murderers. The things these girls were able to do while I slept were as unlimited as their only too vivid imaginations. Not only did they visit balls at palaces in chauffeur-driven fancy carriages, they also witnessed and participated in ghastly, heinous crimes and deeds of terror. They described these in detail with relish while I cringed in horror.
When I was “discovered” listening, they threatened me with severe retribution should I divulge to a living soul the conversations I had “accidentally” overheard. I would try bluffing and insist they were lying, but they saw through my quivering show of bravery and I never did tell a soul — until I was safely grown up.
Despite the blood-curdling activities they participated in, I very much wanted to join their exciting adventures. My child’s world was totally hum-drum in comparison to their world of fantasy. I begged. I bribed. I nagged. I threatened to stay awake all night and follow them. How often I fought sleep, hoping to spy on them. Many the night I dallied, sitting bare-bottomed on the commode in the bathroom, determined to watch that rat-hole all night long.
It was cold in our old, drafty, unheated flat. The cold crawled through the holes everywhere as easily as the mice did. In the winter, icy water dripped from the water tank high above me onto my bare backside. I’d eventually get bored and tired and give in and go to bed. No matter how long I managed to keep myself awake, my sisters said they left just after I fell asleep.
Not ever did they agree to take me, though they often pretended to consider it IF I would behave better, be kinder to them, do everything they told me to, give them whatever they asked of me, get older, smarter, or improve in whatever way they decided I was deficient.
I continued to half-believe, incredibly, even after the morning two creatures, covered in white sheets, entered my bedroom as I was just about to climb out of bed. They seemed about the height of my sisters. One stood behind the other while they spoke in eerie, scary, ghost-like voices. They raised their arms under their sheets and declared “I’m Cooookkkkooooo!” and “I’m Duuuummmmiiiieeee!”
Yikes! My face turned the same color as the sheets. I froze with fear, unable to move a muscle. I could hear my heart pounding so loud, I thought my chest would burst. All of me wanted to crawl back under my blanket, but I couldn’t move. Perhaps they were my sisters, but how could I be sure? Very softly, because I couldn’t muster much of a voice, and hopefully, I ventured: “No, you’re not! You’re Pauline and Shirley! You don’t scare me….” My voice growing smaller and smaller…. After torturing me a little longer, they threw off their sheets, tremendously pleased with their successful performance and fell over each other in glee and gales of laughter.
“I knew it was you all the time,” I said, halfheartedly trying to join in — hoping they would not know how frightened I had been. The ball of fear residing in the pit of my stomach, however, refused to leave even after I did know. It was a fear so real I can still feel it even now.
These two resourceful little witches explained this prank by saying they just wanted to tease me, but as I already knew, Cookoo and Dummie really did exist. I couldn’t get to meet them because they would not be bothered with as unimportant and stupid a personage as myself.
I don’t know, because I can’t remember exactly when the game stopped. Maybe they tired of it. Perhaps it ended when they learned it would no longer work. Is it possible there came a time I convinced them I really no longer believed? I can’t say.
Cookoo and Dummie, however, shall be remembered by me always. I also remember the size and shape of that magic rat-hole behind the commode, which our dad tried again and again (unsuccessfully) to block, in that old flat on City Hall Avenue in Montreal.
Note: It is important for you to know, however, that while this story was taking place, my sister Shirley got into really big trouble for breaking our neighbors’ front door window by banging on it in a fury. Their daughter had hit me and made me cry. I was Shirley’s little sister and she would not allow that to go unpunished.
I also marvel at the on-the-spot creativity of both sisters. Television would be much more interesting if they had been hired to write some scripts.