Captivated by An Imaginary Playmate

DISMAL skies threatened the weekend and convinced me I needed a rainy-day project: sorting treasures from moldy boxes stockpiled in my mother's attic.

Pensively, I searched through momentos. A large timeworn envelope caught my eye. After carefully opening the flap, I emptied its contents. Two pictures, a shabby cloth tangled with blond ringlets, and a tattered blue ribbon dropped to the floor.

A flood of memories overwhelmed me as I caressed the ragged photos, one of Shirley Temple smiling and dimpled with a halo of blond curls. The other of me, also blond, curly, and dimpled.

I was about 5 when my parents took me to see a Shirley Temple movie. We boarded an old trolley and clink-clanked all the way to our neighborhood movie house, where ``The Littlest Rebel'' was playing. I was captivated by Shirley's opening song and dance, by her radiant smile, her sad little pout, and her final salute at the end. I vowed to be just like her.

The famous Temple curls cloaked my head, but I was distressed because only one dimple adorned my chubby cheeks. Shirley had a set.

For months I pressed a finger in the left side of my face, unsuccessfully trying to put a dent in the fleshly part.

Not only did I want to look like my heroine, but I wanted to dance and sing too!

My parents, recovering from the Great Depression, managed to mete out 50 cents a week for dance lessons. Linoleum-covered floors in our apartment pulsated with my dance steps. ``The Good Ship Lollipop,'' from Shirley's movie, rang through our home, echoing from plastered walls to lofty ceilings.

I was a lonely child and lived in a make-believe world where imaginary playmates were my companions. Shirley became my best friend, confidant, and the sister I longed for. We would play for hours, sipping tea from china cups and playing dress-up in Mother's old clothes. I would re-create stories from Shirley Temple movies, pretending to be a rebel, a poor little rich girl, or a princess.

One morning, Mother awakened me: ``Get up, Norma, I have a surprise for you.'' She laughed off my questions as she coiled my hair, clipping curls with bobby pins. After breakfast, we slipped on our coats and hats. Mother grabbed her gloves, pocket book, a large box, and me. No matter how much I pleaded, she wouldn't tell what was in the box, nor where we were going.

``You must be patient a little longer,'' she said, hugging me.

We rode a streetcar to downtown Atlanta. Mother hoisted me on her lap so I could look out the window. Masses of people were moving along the sidewalks - some browsing, others quickly stepping to the blast of horns and the drone of wheels. I saw buildings stretching toward sky.

``They must be as tall as Jack's beanstalk,'' I whispered.

My mouth watered when the aroma of popcorn from a street vendor drifted through the window. I watched beggars peddling their plight, and heard street preachers shouting gloomy predictions. My head spun, as strangers entered one door and exited another, mirroring the movement of a carousel.

Mother pulled a cord to alert the driver we wanted to get off. We exited the vehicle and shortly entered the most beautiful building I had ever seen.

I looked around, marveling at the red carpet, velvet chairs, and ornate frames filled with portraits of royalty. Staring at the massive, gold-laminated mirrors decorating the walls and the majestic chandeliers, I gasped, ``It's so pretty.''

``The largest theater in Atlanta,'' Mother answered.

The lobby was crowded with little girls and proud moms. Mother explained: ``Norma, your dance instructor entered you in the Shirley Temple look-a-like contest, being held today. Your recital dress and slippers are in the box, honey. We think you have a good chance to win.''

I threw my arms around mother, so thrilled I couldn't speak.

Now fingering the tarnished gold inscription, ``First Place,'' sprinkled on a piece of frayed blue cloth, I smiled. A $10 bill accompanied that coveted award, but more importantly, I was judged ``most like Shirley Temple.''

I never did meet her, and as time passed, my preoccupation with her began to fade.

I had not thought of Shirley Temple Black in years. I remembered admiring her many accomplishments. She was an ambassador, United Nations representative, wife, mother, and grandmother. But mostly I remembered her as an imaginary playmate.

For years ``we'' sang, danced, and played together ... It was always Shirley and me.

Carefully opening the tattered envelope, I returned the precious keepsakes to their cache.

Depositing the thick container in a storage box, I hoisted it to a shelf in the closet and slid it out of sight. As I turned to leave, I was startled by the most poignant sound: children's muffled giggles. I was sure I heard them say, ``Let's pretend to be sisters today!''

After breakfast, we slipped on our coats. Mother grabbed her gloves, a large box, and me. No matter how much I pleaded, she wouldn't tell what was in the box, nor where we were going.

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