I slept in a crib until I was six and then I moved to the big bed where my grandmother slept when she wasn’t doing elder care. From six on, I would alternate between the two beds, sometimes sleeping alone, sometimes sleeping with my Grandmother. The wall behind my crib had flower pattern wallpaper and my crib was pushed up against a closet containing seldom worn clothing and some treasures from my mother’s childhood including a porcelain Shirley Temple doll and a marionette. The marionette was a mustachioed Mexican man wearing a sombrero and holding a guitar.
The wall behind my crib was magical. I believed that all my favorite cartoon characters lived in that wall. Most of the time, it was a peaceful community where Disney characters got along with Warner Brothers and Walter Lantz characters, Hanna-Barbera characters got along with Terry Tunes. The evil characters lived in the light fixture. They flew in WWI style planes with gun turrets and sometimes bombed me and my cartoon friends. This was long before Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
I didn’t have many nightmares, but there were a few that stood out. After I saw The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, I couldn’t get Tony Randall as Medusa out of my head. As soon as I turned out the lights there she/he was with all those snakes coming out of her/his head. I was terrified that she/he would turn me to stone. Was it fear of the mystical or was this my introduction to gender issues.
The remnants of Mrs. DeElton’s barbershop and spa were in her basement. I would play with her grandsons, Kurt and Norman, and the Pace girls, in what was essentially a laundry room. There was an old barber chair we would take turns raising up to its full height and then we would spin each other round and round until we were dizzy.
The basement was divided into two parts, on the laundry side there was a cement floor, on the other side, behind a stubborn door, it was dirt and forsaken possessions. On the dirt side, there were two old steam cabinets that we called the coffins. We would pretend that we were vampires and lay inside these boxes for hours at a time.
I once had a dream that I went to Hell. I was walking down the stairs to Mrs. DeElton’s laundry room and the Devil was coming up the stairs. He smiled at me and pointed downstairs where I heard loud music playing. When I got downstairs I discovered that there was a costume party going on, something right out of a Roger Corman movie like Masque of the Red Death. I suppose it was those darn coffins that inspired this dream. I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I decided that I would challenge the idea that when you die in your dreams you really die.
I taught myself to stage my dreams by thinking about what I wanted to dream about or finding a solution to a problem while I slept. I would schedule double features with movie stars that I wanted to see and at every dream screening, I started the show with a cartoon and a short subject.
Dreams didn’t frighten me, except for the Medusa incident. What did scare me was the shadow that would come to my window and make terrible threats late at night. It could have been my Uncle David or it could have been a recurring nightmare. After several visits from this shadow, I gathered up enough courage to get out of my crib and rush to the window. I got there just in time to see a shadow running across the wall of Mrs. DeElton’s house. The shadow never came back after I faced my fear.
There really was life in the walls at Nana’s house, but it wasn’t cartoon characters. I grew up in a house infested with cockroaches. When I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom or get a drink from the kitchen, it looked like the walls were moving. If I used a flash light, I could watch them scatter a few at a time. If I turned on the lights, I could see hundreds of them making a rush for the cabinets and the cracks in the woodwork. It was scary at first, but I lost my fear eventually and made midnight raids to destroy as many of them as I could manage. Armed with my stomping shoes, bug spray and a flyswatter, I killed many dark brown knights in shiny armor. They weren’t cute like the bugs in the Raid commercials. They were a plague upon my house and I swore a solemn oath to conquer and vanquish each and every one of them.
It was hard to go back to sleep after one of these late night battles. Nana would be asleep in her chair in the living room and I would be in the kitchen cooking a grilled cheese sandwich and pouring myself a celebratory glass of milk.
“I know there are more of you in there”, I would say to the dish cabinet. “I dare you to come out. I will kill you bastards. Get out of my house. Go to Hell, demons.” I would talk to the walls until my sandwich was done, then I would sit in the breakfast nook and plot my next attack.