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Inconsistencies between life and art: a child’s version

This week when my grandson came to play after daycare, we read Mary Poppins. Like every child, he has sung “ A spoonful of sugar… Let’s go fly a kite” and so is quite familiar with the story; however, when we began to read the book, we discovered that there were actually four Banks children, not just Jane and Michael: the twins, John and Barbara, for the most part asleep in their cots. This really puzzled and troubled C.J. Why had they not been mentioned in the movie?

On the drive home in an attempt to explain the similarity among the songs “ Happy”, Let it go and “ A spoonful of sugar”, all C.J. could only focus on was the missing twins, pondering their absence. I must admit a similar revelation in that when we watched the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” that provided the backstory for Mary Poppins, we learned that the story is not about a wonderful nanny, the spectacularly inventive Mary Poppins, but Helen Goff. Goff was the author’s birth name, and apparently the impetus for penning the tale resided in her desire to vindicate her father, Travers. He was an unsuccessful bank manager and heavy drinker who died when she was 7. In the film, he is portrayed as an unreliable, but charming drunk – albeit the person who coaxed Helen’s imagination to life, and whom she adored. She took his name “Travers” as her writing signature. Father-daughter relationships ( Electra) and mother-son ( Oedipus) that derive their origins from ancient Greece have been reinterpreted by Jung, Freud , Beckett and many others.

When I investigate further, I discover that P.L. Travers/ Helen Goff in her private life intended to adopt twins, changed her mind, and took only one of the boys, one interestingly named Camillus. She never revealed the truth to the child; however, as life is in deed stranger than some fictions, the twins eventually ended up meeting in a bar as adults. It seems the truth never does stay properly hidden.

I wonder if the missing twins from the book will lodge somewhere in CJ’s mind and become one of the facts he recalls from his childhood. When I reflect on my earliest experiences in my our house on Glengarry, I can recall a red breakfast nook, tucked into our kitchen beneath a window. I remember as well a red blanket spread on the grass in the backyard where Marlene, my friend from across the street, and I were glued to The Teddy Bear’s Picnic broadcast on the radio. Was it the bright colour red that cemented these objects in my mind?

I know some people claim they recall their exits from the womb and their nascent screaming from their cribs, but if I harbour such early images, they remain darkly hidden somewhere in my mind although truly, who would want to remember, the squeeze and pressure of being pushed into the blazing light of a birth chamber. No wonder the Leboyer fanatics immediately submerge newly harvested infants into warm baths.

According to my mother, I was strongly admonished for picking flowers through our neighbour’s fence. Mrs. Bailey, my mother told me, the lady next door ,dearly loved the flowers as if they were her children, as she had none of her own. It was in this house on Glengarry where my father succumbed to polio and I began my school days.

I recall running home from school, my teacher close on my heels and announcing to my mother that my teacher was coming for lunch. My mother in her apron in a tizzy was surprised but graciously served us Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheeses sandwiches. My adult mind makes me wonder why would a teacher-on the word of a kindergarten child- accept such an invitation. I cannot resurrect the face of the teacher, only a vague image of her being young and rather slim and somewhat out of breath as she knocked at our door. And my mother mildly annoyed at the intrusion.

Likely it was the same teacher who lauded my advanced art ability on a Parent –Teacher night. MY picture that displayed an acrobat swinging through the stages of athletic flight must have been unusual, different from the hairpin drawings or pictures of multi-sized misshapen families that adorned the classroom walls. I can clearly recreate how warming the feeling of praise felt as it tingled throughout my body.

Years later I would hear of my elder daughter’s paintings being presented at a Grade one Parents’ Night as the top level of Piaget and certainly remarkable. Perhaps this was the only Parents’ Night I ever missed for my husband must have been out or I, ill at home. The news was reported to me by impressed parents who had been at the presentation. My girl would continue to dazzle with her unique and advanced interpretations in the arts.

I do wonder what marks us in our later life: what we will recall with pride or embarrassment; why certain events stick and others merely pass through our consciousness like a bird in flight. Or what I laughingly refer to as my “ Teflon brain”. I do know the extremes of emotion persist in us: the moments of supreme laughter or abject sadness that guide us towards our professions or predilections.

Will our grandson decide to write mysteries in attempt to discover where the missing twins might have been during the Mary Poppins movie? Will he decide to trace the pattern of fraternal twins in science? Will he move on towards the philosophical connections of fact and illusion? Maybe he will become a critic? Or will the memory vanish completely and find its place among the single socks that somehow disappear without a trace along with the errant umbrellas and the one important notice you absolutely must find.

At age 5 and 6, the world is filled with wonder and I ponder William Blake’s speculation on a grain of sand and the intensity with which so many ordinary things can light up the world with questions or curiosity, wrapping them in an ethereal light.

Maybe our delight in travel in visiting new places is derived from that desire to be lit with, to experience anew, to see freshly with bright eyes released from the cynicism of the de rigeur and the patterns that tend to desensitize us from that sudden beauty. So that, caught unawares, we suddenly gasp and “ see”.

When I taught high school, it was likewise: with students offering original insights that tickled my brain in previously unthought of ways that lead me towards that wonderful Bakhtin dialogic of building a ladder of original ideas onto the rungs of their conjectures. Maybe that is why I love spending time with my grandson, his way of looking and noticing: of re-experiencing what I have taken for granted for almost 70 years as he word paints with the glisten of surprise.

Indeed, were John and Barbara taking a bath, out for a lark, under the table or purposefully hidden by the movie maker? Without curiosity and imagination, we really are dullards.

Unlike children who make us think and wonder.

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