sleeping beauty trips me with a frown

One day when I was probably three or four years old, I told my mom, "I want to be a real princess and live in a castle and wear beautiful dresses all the time."  At least, this is what my mother told me I said; I have no memory of it, although I do remember thinking as a child (heck, as an adult) that castles and gowns and fairy godmothers were all so utterly, wonderfully romantic.

For me the wish to be a princess was all about the fantastic unreality of it. In my imagination, princesshood meant beauty - not my own physical beauty, but being surrounded by beautiful things. Beautiful brocades, beautiful embroidered tapestries, beautiful architecture, beautiful landscapes filled with beautiful babbling brooks and beautiful meadows and forests.  Years later when I first encountered Keats and read "a thing of beauty is a joy forever," my soul thrilled to the same truth I had found on my own in childhood.  That love of beauty made every shrub in our yard into a palace and every plain sheet into a ball gown.

For my mom, however, my wish was anything but romantic. For her, it was a criticism of what she and my father could provide. Our house must be too meager, our clothing too plain. My wish was selfish, ungrateful, pretentious. It was an insult to her, a rejection of our commoners' existence. For many years my four-year-old fantasy was held up as proof of how self-centered and dissatisfied I was, right from the start.

For the thirty some-odd years in between, I felt misunderstood and scorned, yet also sympathetic with my mother, who struggled along with my father to make ends meet and must have received my daydreams of jewels and royal balls with a desperate sadness, knowing she could never make my dreams come true. But in the past few years, as my children have grown through early childhood, I have come to realize how every child romanticizes the world and has splendid, romantic wishes.  Why didn't my mother understand that I was just being a kid, exercising my imagination?  Why did she, instead, take my daydreams so personally?

Last week, I was playing a room escape game with my eldest son. The game was created using photos of an enormous mansion, and at one point, my son voiced a wish to live in a castle like that one. I'll admit, for a moment I felt defensive. Was he unhappy with our home? Does he feel deprived? But then I remembered my princessy wishes, and knew that it's ok for him to entertain fantasies of living in a home large enough to fit twenty of ours inside. It doesn't make him ungrateful or materialistic. It doesn't mean anything about me or him or our real life.

So I joined him in his wishing, comparing notes on our dream homes.  Realizing that I was able to get over myself and understand how normal his wish is made me feel sad for the four-year-old girl whose mother could not join her in pretending, choosing instead to form a permanent judgment of the girl's character. I also felt sad for the mother, who must have had a horrible deprivation inside herself in order to take such a universal childhood wish so personally.

Let us all remember the joy of creating imaginary castles, and join our children in roaming through those marble halls.

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