When I was little, I had an imaginary friend, his name was Uncle Wilkensack.
Actually, I had twenty one imaginary friends because Uncle Wilkensack had a wife, they had seventeen kids and they had two pet alligators.
I can still remember the first time I met them. I was sick with a high fever, lying in bed when Uncle Wilkensack and his wife appeared. It was summer in Tennessee, but they were dressed in winter clothes. A wool coat and a boxy hat on him, a silky fur coat and pillbox hat for her. Dressed up for some fancy thing, complete with pearls, bright read lipstick and circles of rouge on her powdered cheeks. She smelled like White Shoulders perfume as she leaned over – they were about four feet tall – to take my hand. Uncle Wilkensack touched my forehead and patted my cheek. They never spoke, just smiled and fussed over me and I felt safe and loved. I was probably three or four years old.
I didn’t meet their kids until later, the alligators appeared one morning as I was watching Captain Kangaroo in the living room. Unnoticed under the coffee table until Mama came in to vacuum and almost sucked them up with her new Electrolux. I don’t know who was more surprised, Mama or me.
As you can imagine, I had lots of fodder for stories. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. I loved books-the magic inside each one. I wanted to do that, I wanted my name on the cover – to be the one who turned words into something magical- to give someone an escape from reality. To make someone laugh, show them the Wilkensack’s and take them on our adventures.
My mama taught me and my older sister both to read before we started kindergarten. I can still quote the words to my favorite book, MISS TWIGGLY’S TREE – Funny Miss Twiggly lived in a tree, with her dog named puss and a color TV. She did what she liked, and liked what she did – but when company came Miss Twiggly hid.
It’s a beautiful story. It’s funny, how forty three years later, I see how much I have in common with Miss Twiggly. I didn’t realize it back then – she seemed so old – swinging in the branches of her tree with her reading glasses hanging around her neck.
STAND BACK,” SAID THE ELEPHANT, “I’M GOING TO SNEEZE!” THE GIVING TREE, and a story that I can’t remember the title of, but the illustrations are as clear as day, about a mean monkey who throws coconuts down on a crocodile’s head-thinking he’s too good for the jungle until he moves to the city and misses his coconut tree and his friend, the crocodile.
Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, Dr. Suess, and of course, Dorothea Warren Fox, were my idols.
Then it was all of THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE books read over and over, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boy mysteries. Anything I could get my hands on, including a copy of HELTER SKELTER I found in a box in our garage at the tender age of nine. Believe me, hiding in my treehouse, reading about Charles Manson left a mark. There’s a reason my mama had that book taped up in a box in the garage… She was not happy that I’d found it. I wasn’t either, but I couldn’t stop reading until the last page.
All the stories made an impression and fueled my imagination.
I’m not sure when Uncle Wilkensack and his family decided to move on to the next kid that needed them. There were no goodbyes – I probably had my nose stuck in a book and didn’t notice them packing their suitcases. But every time I sit down to write, I can’t help but think of them and say a little thank you.