Ever since the first little mermaid sat on a rock to sing a scale, children have asked parents, “are mermaids real?”
Depending on our personal commitment to the maintenance of childhood innocence and the magic of TV, especially Animal Planet’s Mermaids docu-tales (documentary fairytales) we can make childhood stretch just a bit longer. However, be careful what you wish for, lest you end up with adults who find themselves, like Peter Pan, unable to grow up and face the music of real science on sirens.
Given the ocean of Titanic news events we must all slog through daily, it’s little wonder I – who literally wrote the book on Mermaids – meet so many adults as well as children who ask me, “Are mermaids really real?” Over the past 10 years of living in Norfolk, Virg. where I have written two children’s books about merfolk and created a read and walk story trail from one larger-than-life-size mermaid sculpture to the next.
While I love science, I also have a household of men, four sons and a husband, who are all serious, logical, literal business 24-7. In response to that, I try to generate a little mommy magic and occasionally take a poke at science just to lighten things up for my sons and my sanity. Given the fact that science tends to flip-flop on everything from the value of fish oil in our diets to the shroud of Turin, I think it’s OK to have a little fun at its expense every now and then with a mermaid tale or two.
Last night, Animal Planet followed-up its science fictional, but photorealistic, “Mermaids: the body found,” with “Mermaids: The New Evidence.” The new mer-mentary asks us to keep on believing that mermaids are among us, if only through the some very fishy video.
Last year when the first “documentary” came out in May, I was filling in as an editor at a local daily newspaper and had to call someone in a city office here for comment on a story about the how the broadcast was impacting tourism.
Norfolk is known as The Mermaid City because our city symbol is the mermaid and more than 300, 8-foot-long, 4-foot high, mermaid sculptures dot the landscape. More mermaid sculptures, mostly by local Artist Georgia Mason, are added to our streets by private collectors and businesses every year.
To my eternal shock, the city official asked to “go off the record” asking me, “Are mermaids really real? I swear never to tell another living soul, but I need to know because I’ve always believed and I know your books explain everything about them. I know you lived on a sailboat. You must know the truth.”
I suppose now is as good a time as any to admit to being the one behind Merwiki which I began with my youngest son immediately after the first Animal Planet mockumentary and the NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) response debunking our girls came to light. The site regularly generates e-mail questions from around the globe on the legitimacy, history, and physicality of mermaids. I try to answer as many as I can each week.
Any time I am asked if mermaids are real, I tell the same story; and when that fails, I quote Shel Silverstein.
The first thing I tell people is that when we moved from New Jersey to Norfolk 10 years ago our sons, then ages nine, eight, and three, would point to each and every mermaid sculpture they saw, competing to be the first to shout, “There goes a mermaid!” The first to shout it claimed that mermaid as his own personal property.
My husband told them, “They’re not real. They’re just statues.”
Son Ian, then eight, would have none of that kind of talk and beset his father with questions in an effort to prove that these so-called sculptures must have some actual connection, some secret entrée to the magical world of merfolk. Every car ride was peppered with questions about these fiberglass sculptures. See the Norfolk City website Mermaids on Parade to view some of our “mermaids."
Because each sculpture is mounted on a pipe, Ian insisted, “Why pipes? Pipes are useful things, carrying water. Maybe there’s a reason they chose pipes for the sculptures!”
One day, as we drove around downtown, a place where one can’t swing a dead catfish without hitting a mermaid sculpture, Ian had my husband at the end of his rope due to his relentless inquiries.
To save us all from impending doom I turned to Ian, who was in the back seat, and delivered the impromptu speech that would change our lives and make me “the mermaid author” for all-time sake.
“The pipes are there because they go down through the street, under the city and out to the river which leads to the sea. Mermaids are shape-shifters. They can turn into water and swim into the pipes, under the city and flow up into the pipes, up through the city and into the hollow sculptures which are their city apartments. When we stop the car you can get out and put your ear to one of the mermaids and if you hear the ocean you know a mermaid is at home inside.”
Ian looked at me and weighed this answer carefully before responding, “Excellent! How do they get out and turn into women?” Ummm…
When Hurricane Isabelle hit the next day, we had nine days with no electricity and a note pad to figure out the answer to that and all the mermaid questions the other boys asked during that time. The answers became the book “There Goes a mermaid! A NorFolktale," which benefits two children’s charities here in Norfolk.
Unfortunately, telling that simple and slightly ambiguous truth with no explanation of how I “knew” that about the sculptures often fails to satisfy. In those cases I simple recite "Magic," a favorite childhood poem from Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends":
“Sandra’s seen a leprechaun,
Eddie touched a troll,
Laurie danced with witches once,
Charlie found some goblins gold.
Donald heard a mermaid sing,
Susy spied an elf,
But all the magic I have known
I've had to make myself.”
Of course being a parent means making magic all by yourself. To do so requires imagination and isn’t the necessity for that daily magic the mother of invention?