Friday, August 28, 2009

Madame and Storm King

Mom loved to read, but didn’t have the same opportunities to read often like Dad. She didn’t read English, and the books in her language were expensive and difficult to obtain. So, instead, Mom told stories to the little Gang of Three, Linda, Gus and Tim, on cold wintry days when it was too dark and cold to play outside. The story blanket Mom wove wrapped around the three little siblings like magical warp and woof of truth and fantasy.

Mom told stories that she heard as she was growing up in her old country. Other stories were current history, things that were happening in real life that future school children would study. One such story was about Madame President’s Wife, who, unlike Linda, was a youngest sister. Mom admired Madame, because like Mom, Madame came from a Christian family that taught their girl children to read and write, just like the boys were taught. Linda thought it was very strange that girls would not know how to read and write, because she already loved books even though she couldn’t read very well yet.

Madame was a scholar who spoke several languages and translated her husband’s speeches and papers into the languages of world leaders. Linda asked Mom if Madame ever put her own thoughts and words into the speeches and papers of her husband, the President, and Mom agreed that “Yes, it is possible, but scandalous, that the proper Madame might have snuck her own words in.” Linda thought it was delicious that the dignified Madame who dressed in long white gloves and floor-length gowns to dine and dance at state dinners with kings and queens would do something so sneaky. “Dignified” was Mom’s favorite description of anyone she admired.

Gus and Tim were a whole lot less interested in the stories about Madame than the ones Mom told about Storm King, mighty warrior king, who leaped over whole provinces with one push-off from his muscular legs. Storm King had white fur instead of hair on his head and where his beard would have grown. He carried a thick staff made from the stalks of bamboo trees that were still alive, bundled together and squeezed tightly in the middle where the Storm King’s hand grasped it. What trouble the poor Storm King had when his staff would grow without warning as he was using it to fight an enemy soldier or to dig for grubs to eat while on military campaigns far from home. It was even worse when the staff was strapped to Storm King’s back as he galloped across the countryside on horseback, and the staff began to stretch out its length from both ends at the same time! No wonder Storm King had attendants who carried sharp swords and stayed nearby so that they could help him trim his staff when it began to grow.

Because Mom had no books from which to read stories of Storm King, the children had to imagine what he looked like and how he moved and fought. Linda never shared her images of Storm King, keeping them secret inside herself, and Gus and Tim didn’t talk much, preferring to poke each other when Mom was telling stories and breaking down into giggles while jumping from the family bed to the baby crib in the one bedroom of their tenement house apartment. When Linda played with their green molded plastic soldiers and tan plastic cowboys, she would imagine stories about Storm King and his heroic journeys across the old country, looking for trouble to sort out and poor people to help.

Sometimes Linda would imagine that she was a grown up lady just like Madame President’s Wife, educated in medicine and science and knowing how to dance in elegant ballgowns, able to speak in any language of the world to important people about important things. Linda would ask Mom how Madame learned to do all the things she knew how to do and promised herself that when she grew up, she would learn to do those things, too. Even at a young age, Linda knew what was real and what was fantasy. It just turned out as Linda got older that she sometimes couldn’t separate the two, but that is a story for another telling.

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