making things up: names and games
The first thing I remember making up was a new name for my brother, Mark, who was born when I was three years old. I imagine I was not happy with all the attention he received merely for existing. When visitors thought they were being cute by asking me what my baby brother’s name was, I hissed “Kalkaska” and stomped out of the room. It was the name of a place where my father and his friends went hunting and the ugliest word I knew at the time. A few years later, I invented numerous ways to torture my brother, such as sending him out into the neighborhood dressed as an old woman.
When my mother was expecting her third child, I was coincidentally agitating for a puppy. She suggested we have the new baby first and get a puppy the next year. I briefly considered the idea. But after my experiences with sibling number one, I decided it would be better to get the puppy first and a baby—if we absolutely had to have one—the following year. Needless to say, that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. And it was another boy.
a proclivity for morbidity
During elementary school, I was the oldest of the neighborhood gang and both bossy and creative. After our ordinary games grew boring, I made up things for us to do. My parents’ backyard had several features that lent themselves nicely to these activities. The built-in brick barbecue grill, for example, had a large flat surface that proved ideal as a make-believe morgue slab. We kids took turns playing the “dead man” by simulating a deceased person spread out on top of the slab/grill, the cannibalistic aspects having escaped me at the time. Everyone else formed a semicircle around it chanting, “Dead man, dead man, come alive; come and catch me with your big green eyes.”
It was not poetry and it didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was great fun. The rest of us had to remain in place chanting away (there were more verses) until the dead man jumped up and started chasing us. The kid who was caught became the next dead man. As with any game, there were rules. In this case, lots of rules. In fact, we had frequent “rule breaks” to decide important matters, such as which neighbor’s backyard we were “legally” allowed to cross into.
a star is born?
Then there was the wooden picnic table that served as a stage for several variety shows, in which all the other kids performed—complete with costume changes—to an audience of ticket-buying parents and neighbors. I was the writer/director/stage manager/promoter, and general whip-cracker. This was not unlike some of my later roles in life.
The shows were a natural extension of my playwriting hobby that began when I was quite young. I painstakingly printed every word of dialogue and stage direction, completing well over a hundred “great works,” all of which are long gone. I can imagine—although I can’t remember doing so—ceremoniously dumping them into the trash one day, upon deciding I’d outgrown that phase. It’s something I would have done.
and we get credit for this?
Still in elementary school, I volunteered for the Entertainment Committee one year. My co-chair and I were given specific dates—holidays and such—for which we were to provide some sort of entertainment for the class. We could do just about anything we wanted to do—and in front of a captive audience! Our stellar events included three plays that I wrote, cast, costumed, directed, and rehearsed in the coat room in the back of the classroom. We were excused from class for rehearsal. I couldn’t believe what an incredible racket we got to run.
The first two plays were, let’s say, not a complete success. By Christmas, though, I had it down. That play went off without a hitch and received sustained applause. Props included baked sugar cookies, which one of the actors frosted with real frosting I brought to school in one of my mother’s aqua Pyrex mixing bowls.
the unbirthday parties
My favorite creation from that time period was the series of unbirthday parties. One weekday near the beginning of summer, my next-door neighbor and I were trying to get her little brother to leave us alone so we could clean out a room in the basement of her house. I bribed him by promising we would have a birthday party for him later if he would go away now.
He went for it and left us to our labors. When we finished, we talked my friend’s mother, who was a stay-at-home mom and a good sport, into helping us with the party. I will never forget that cake. I think it was one of my friend’s pre-Easy-Bake toy oven mixes because it was very small. The inside was chocolate and vanilla marble. The outside was covered in Kelly Green frosting and multicolored sprinkles. It was a cake only a kid could truly appreciate—or look at without gagging.
We all bought presents from the dime store and wrapped them before the party, which of course was held in the freshly cleaned and festively decorated room in the basement. It was such a blast that all the other kids wanted parties, too. There were seven of us altogether, so for the better part of two months we had weekly unbirthday parties, each one slightly more elaborate than the last. Both moms had to get involved when it was finally time for my party.
a rose by any other name would still call her brother Kalkaska
Eventually, I developed somewhat of a reputation in regard to my ring-leading nature and choice of activities, especially with my neighbor friend’s father. Whenever he thought something we were into was the least bit odd, he could be heard muttering that it must have been Joycelyn’s idea. Only he didn’t call me Joycelyn because that’s not the name my mother gave me. That’s the name I made up for myself some 40-odd years ago.