Imaginary Friends

"For my grandmother, her invisible friends were her escape."

Imagination and fiction make up more than three-quarters of our real life.

~Simone Weil

At four feet, nine inches and barely ninety pounds, Grandmother was a powerhouse of energy. Wearing white bobby socks and canvas tennis shoes, she rambled through her two-story brick home, sanitizing each room and washing her hands every hour over the kitchen sink.

As Grandmother scrubbed her palms raw with lye soap and a dishrag, she whispered, "What did y'all say? Hee, hee. You comin'? We need you here."

Curious about her company, I raced into the kitchen to investigate. Upon hearing my footsteps, she abruptly ceased her muffled chatter as if I had interrupted an appointment with a good friend. Turning toward me while continuing to scour her hands, she'd say, "Dwan, what can I get for you? Why don't you go out and play?"

On my way out the door, I would hear her resume the conversation. "What did y'all say? Hee, hee. I'm washing, washing. No, I didn't hear from her. Where is she?" Grandmother seemed to be having so much fun. I always wondered what her invisible friends were saying, but I didn't dare ask. I was told at an early age that it wasn't polite to speak of her companions.

I liked visiting Grandmother but noticed, when not in the company of her make-believe friends, she seemed melancholy and distant. She seldom left the house and often told me of plots against her. She'd say, "The lady next door is making moonshine and wants me to leave town so I won't tell the police" or "Brother Brown has been sending people to watch me because I saw him steal money buried in the cemetery." I struggled to separate reality from counterfeit in her world.

After long visits with Grandmother, I breathed a sigh of relief to be free of fantasy. This reprieve ended the day my sister introduced me to Tyler. Like many young children, six-year-old Bonnie had conceived an imaginary friend. Unlike our grandmother's private companions, who only dwelled within the confines of her walls, Tyler went with us everywhere.

When we sat down to eat at McDonald's, Bonnie announced, "He's eating my hamburger." When we drove through town, "Tyler, look at the big buildings." When it was time to go to bed, "Brush your teeth, boy."

One day while visiting Grandmother, I said, "Bonnie is crazy, Grandmother. She has an imaginary friend. She talks to him all the time, and it is driving me nuts. I'm embarrassed to have my friends over because they may see her talking to him."

Grandmother clenched her raw fists and looked up at me. (I was already taller than her at age eleven.) "Now, just you listen. You better not say that to her. Don't you know that imaginary friends are a sign of creativity? Very intelligent people have imaginary companions, and Bonnie is a very smart girl. She reminds me of me. So you hush."

I pondered what my grandmother said. Creativity? Intelligence? I had never associated them with incessant chatter to invisible people.

Thirty years later, as I replay this conversation in my mind, I realize that fantasy serves distinct purposes for different people.

For my grandmother, her invisible friends were her escape. They were pleasure, solace, and an expression of the joys and pain of her existence. They held her within the walls of mental illness, yet permitted her to maintain contact with her true identity as a wife, mother and grandmother. Her companions soothed her compulsions and gave her courage to face contrived conspiracies.

For Bonnie, Tyler was truly an expression of her creativity and intelligence. He was a temporary stage in the adventures of childhood. He entertained, while enabling her to expand her communication and social skills. He comforted my sister at a time when the world seemed too large for little girls.

Tyler eventually faded from Bonnie's imagination. My grandmother's companions remained until her death. In many ways, I wish life could have been different for Grandmother, but I'm thankful for the simple pleasures she received from her imaginary friends. In some odd way, I believe God allowed them to comfort her soul and lighten the burden of her mental disorders.

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.