Binge watching TV, a pastime for which I previously had little time, and a guilty pleasure I’m loathe to acknowledge, has opened a portal for me during the pandemic, a passageway to another world. Once Upon a Time has been my alternate realm (except for the period I resided within the universe of Schitt’s Creek—almost completely comprised of two adjoining motel rooms–where I voraciously gobbled up all six seasons, the final episode leaving me a sobbing mess in disbelief that it ever was allowed to end).
Contemplative by nature, the isolation of this COVID year has forced constant and not always welcome introspection. Magnetically drawn to the tales of Storybooke, the fictional town inhabited by intersecting celebrities of the make-believe power set (and not just characters from the Brothers Grimm, mind you, but also those of C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, and the numerous Disney creators of Mulan, Jasmine, and Anna and Elsa), I’ve been intrigued by my own intrigue. I have always loved stories, but why such attraction to these fairy tales and their creative twists? Magic, true love, mystical powers, light in the dark, good versus evil, the epic tales contain the stuff of classic yarns. A harmless escape into fantasy, I decided it was. A much needed exit from the chaos of this reality into the multiverse of the Enchanted Forest. A rising hero, a vanquished villain, a happy ending, the clear cinematic themes provided structure. Closure. There’s something satisfying in watching the formulaic saga repeat itself: Innocents, the undeserving victims of circumstance are trapped under a curse cast by a malevolent force seeking to retain brutal control by exerting their powers. Dire straits intensify until certain doom awaits and all hope is lost. Or is it? Because in that precise moment the miracles occur, triumph at the last moment by an unforeseeable savior. A potion, a spell, a token. True love’s kiss. No matter how dark, light always prevails. Love wins the day.
There’s something satisfying in the formulaic saga.
I thought perhaps I’ve been charmed by the childish simplicity. Real life isn’t so black and white. Upon a closer look, however, I saw that neither is life in that pretend place. When peeling back the layers of vile atrocity, no matter how black the heart, no scoundrel began their sojourn as such. Pain, abandonment, betrayal–these drive the bad guy’s blood lust for revenge and destruction. Moral devastation amplifies their rage aimed at those who have what is desired but remains out of reach. And even the good guys sometimes succumb to hopelessness or jealousy. They, too, can lose their way, pouring gasoline on the fire in their fight for justice, learning that the end cannot justify the means. I think even children can tease out the truths embedded in these stories. Especially children.
Maybe my deep dive into the fairytale world isn’t just escapism. Maybe it’s a way for me to process what I’m seeing around me: the age-old struggle of humankind for equity, collectively caught in a violent tug-of-war, “others,” perceived as enemies, dominated and killed. The battle for the soul of humanity is still happening today. For all the advances of technology, in the Information Age, we’re not much different than in the Dark Ages, when kings hoarded wealth and peasants starved. When the elite few sustained their power by climbing on the backs of the working masses.
Even children can tease out the truths in these stories.
I feel in my bones, though, the longing to evolve, to purge ourselves of ugliness and petty, selfish greed, to emerge outside the rigidity of our own thinking into a collaborative, peaceful co-existence. But how do we get from here to there? I suppose the answer lies within each heart and mind. In every choice. As we co-create the world around us, moment by moment, this synergy of choice operates on free will. And like the characters in Storybrooke, we all possess both lightness and darkness. At any given intersection, the possibility exists to take a different fork in the road.
Even then, happy endings aren’t static. They don’t last forever–that was never the point. As perfect as they might feel, our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season. Life is transient. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. The afterlife notwithstanding, the physical limitations of our kingdom on earth offer the inevitable exchange of heartache for the gift of having loved in real time. For every summer, there is a winter. The leaves turn. The snow falls and signals the chapter’s end. And life waits patiently, dormantly, until it renews itself in spring and a new chapter begins.
Our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season.
My Auntie Gwen reached the apex of her winter last week and arrived at the end of her story. She was ready, she told me, at peace. “I’m so looking forward to seeing my mom,” she said. ”And Jesus.”
Aunt Gwen is the third of four siblings now gone. My mother, Pat, died five years ago, and their older brother, J.W., back in 1948 when he was only 10. My Grammy and Grampy, Katie and John, died in 1998 and 1990 respectively. Only Auntie Dee remains earthbound. For now. The family history is written in letters and journals and essays. It’s preserved in my DNA. It lives in my memories, passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions like the one that begins, “Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, there lived a Little Old Man and a Little Old Woman and their Little Dog Turpy in a Little Old House by the field where the hemp stalks grew.” I clutch at a past that’s slipping away to die with those who lived it. Perhaps this is why I am compelled to take up the pen and tell their stories.
Katherine Gwen Lyman was born in Bozeman, Montana on May 14, 1946 and grew up in Wallowa, Oregon. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and a Master’s in Special Education and School Counseling, she spent her career as a beloved teacher of students with disabilities. An avid vegetarian and lover of birds and wildlife and flowers, she was never without a feline companion. Auntie Gwen was my first musical influence, pulling me into her lap to sing as she played the piano. I watched her fingers trill on her delicate flute, amazed and enthralled at the beauty of her embouchure.
This is why I am compelled to tell their stories.
She was a free spirit, a true bohemian, with long, sleek hair and John Lennon glasses, favoring embroidered tunics and leather sandals. With no make up, no fingernail polish, and no shaved underarms, she seemed exotic to my church girl sensibilities, just wild enough. Once Mom drove us south from Phoenix to Tucson to vist her adobe cottage in the middle of the desert. When she didn’t answer we went around to the back to peer in a curtain-less window. And there she was, sitting in Sukhasana (cross-legged) on her meditation cushion, eyes closed, face serene. Completely nude.
We visited her when she lived in Eugene and Seattle and San Francisco, though not in Hilo, Hawaii where she married a gentle bearded man named Guha. They both wore long, native leis, a symbol of their love, over white muslin. His easy-going ways tempered her high energy, and they lived their bliss for a time before parting ways. Later, she lopped off her hair in an asymmetrical cut that became her signature style, short enough to showcase the long beaded earrings she’d made herself. There would only be one more love, though they never wed. Joel, another beautiful man, this one with olive skin and dark curls brushed with silver, was mellow and generous. Another uncle to cherish. But again, only for a time.
Auntie Gwen lived alone after that, but she was rarely lonely, filling her time with friends and family and travel with her widowed mother. She adored her nieces and nephews and loved watching us grow up. She endured her share of physical challenges, an aneurysm that left her without the sense of smell, breast cancer, knee surgery, chronic back pain. But these ailments never dampened her joie de vivre. She was a true optimist with an effervescent smile that lifted right up into her twinkling eyes as if to say, “Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
She told me my mother always accused her of being a “Pollyanna,” the caricature imbued with excessive cheerfulness and based on the heroine in a book of the same name, authored by Eleanor Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was brought to life on the big screen in 1960, with Hayley Mills playing the irrepressibly sunny orphan. A nearly life-sized doll with a dimpled grin and blond curls, wearing a gingham dress and MaryJanes was launched on the retail market to coincide with the Disney film. Either my mom or Gwen owned one because we found it, sitting upright in a corner, green eyes staring, when cleaning out my Grammy’s house after she died. My bet is on Auntie Gwen.
“Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
In her own defense she’d said, “What’s wrong with that? I like seeing the up side of things.” I admit, I myself am slightly suspicious of those with unyielding positivity. But of all her eccentric idiosyncrasies, because of (or maybe even in spite of) an inherently strong personality—a trademark feature of all the women in my family, I find Auntie Gwen’s rejection of gloom admirable. Something I will always seek to emulate. After all, it was her steady stream of buoyancy that kept her afloat her whole life.
She died comfortably and peacefully in her home on Friday, January 8, 2021, surrounded by love, my brother holding one hand and her dear friend, the other. My sisters and I held her in our hearts from miles and miles away. Our goodbye, like too much of this past year, was remote. On Zoom. Auntie Gwen promised if we would hang bells, she would ring them. With quivering chins and welling eyes, we promised to hang them and watch for the sound of her eternal optimism, an omen of her tangible presence and a spark of magic in our ordinary days. And a reminder that “not so long ago and not so far away” a new story has begun.