by Ronna L. Edelstein
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Because I love how the first snow turns the scene outside my window into a magical snow globe and often gives me a guilt-free vacation from school or work, I question how I can loathe the same snow for burning my nose and turning me into a helpless rag doll. I love how M&Ms create a rainbow in a jar and a sweet satisfaction in my stomach, yet I also resent these addictive candies for bringing me unwelcome rolls of fat and unhappy minutes on the elliptical. Love, by making me more vulnerable to pain and misery, confuses me.
Only Dad makes love clear to me; no matter what I do or say, he, like my childhood physician, gives me lollipops of love. However, Dad’s love could not protect me from Ma’s love, which always came with “Do you really like your hair that long?” or “I think your pants are getting tight around the thighs” comments. Dad’s love could only transform my older brother’s initial reaction to me — “You look like a monkey; go away” — into tolerance.
When the love emanating from the yellow daisies of my bridal bouquet wilted into the weeds of divorce, I became a single parent to my son and daughter. I confess that my love for my children has not always been the unconditional love that Oprah and her admirers hold in such high esteem, but I found it difficult to maintain liking, yet alone loving, when my children’s “love” took the form of slamming bedroom doors, blasting music, and rolling eyes. By the time I entered the empty nest chapter of my life, I abandoned love for a shell of solitude. Yet, as I graded papers or did laundry, I could not totally silence a nagging voice that warned me that, by not giving myself one more chance with love, I was denying myself something special.
And then I met Ella, my great niece. By the end of our first dinner together, three-and-a-half-year-old Ella had taught me a lot about love, what it really means, and how I could bring it back to a life of disillusionment, darkness, and depression. Ella’s lessons in love, now in their third year, are a process with no end in sight.
Why I did not meet Ella prior to her toddler years results more from my jealousy that my brother had a grandchild, something I will never experience, than from anything Ella or her mother, my niece, had done. The death of my mother, which diminished my already small family, motivated me to put aside the miscommunications, misconceptions, and missed chances of the past and to invite Ella, her parents, and my brother and his wife to dinner at the apartment I now share with my widowed father.
During the course of the meal, I told Ella how much I loved her big, beautiful, chocolate-brown eyes. Without missing a beat, she responded, “And I love your big beautiful glasses, Aunt Ronna!” My disappointment at not being able to wear contacts disappeared as I realized that this is love – accepting people as they are.
At that same family dinner where my glasses took center stage, I accidentally spilled my soda on the table. When I laughed, “Now, wasn’t that stupid of me?” Ella froze; she stopped creating musical masterpieces with the spoons she had collected, looked at me, looked at her parents, and looked back at me. I heard her unspoken message loud and clear: “Stupid” is not a loving word, and only loving words are allowed in the world of Ella.
On a tour of the apartment, Ella discovered my two figures of Mickey and Minnie Mouse that sit on my window ledge. Instead of rushing over and grabbing them, however, she politely asked if she could hold them. When I granted her permission to do so, Ella gently picked up Mickey and Minnie, kissed each on the nose, whispered, “I love you” to them, and carefully returned them to the ledge. In her one experience at Disney World, Ella had learned what it has taken me a lifetime to figure out – it is a small world after all – and love adds music and color to that world.
In December 2010, I had my third jaw surgery in three years. A few days before the operation, Ella sent me a video. Looking straight into the camera, Ella assured me that everything would go well because “I talked to my best friend Tinkerbelle, and she promised to sprinkle you with pixie dust when you fall asleep and then when you wake up, you will be all better.”
Thanks to Ella, I realize that love is reaching out to another, giving that person a piece of your heart, and wanting absolutely nothing in return but that person’s good health and happiness. Is it any wonder that I have spent the last 160 weeks (and counting) writing one chapter per week about Princess Ella the Enchanting of the Kingdom of Chicago?
Every Friday I mail almost seven-year-old Ella a bubble envelop that contains the latest chapter (with clip art illustrations), a treat (from chocolates to cookies), and a small gift (from an Aladdin book to a Winnie the Pooh puzzle). My family and friends think I am the greatest great-aunt for writing these stories about and for Ella, but they are missing the larger picture: Like all givers, I receive more than I could ever give.
Ella, by renewing my passport to Imagi-Nation, has reminded me that love is adding the extra to the ordinary and making the impossible possible. Only in Imagi-Nation can I send Ella to Yummy Tummy Town where Mayor Marsha Mallow shows her the French Fries Forest and Creamy Cave with its ice cream icicles. Only in Imagi-Nation can she board a bird with silver feathers so she can soar to Disney World and save Mickey and Minnie from the sleeping spell cast upon them by the evil Ursula. And only in Imagi-Nation can I provide Ella with a treasure chest that holds an alphabet of gifts, such as “B” for the book with empty pages — whenever Ella the Enchanting plays make-believe, her imaginary thoughts grow wings and fly from her mind to the blank page of the book — and “W” for the wristwatch that makes time go slower when Ella has fun dancing, eating pizza, or riding her bike, but makes time go faster when she has to get a shot or take yucky medicine to make her feel better. Ella has given me the chance to explore and create — and to embrace each new day with a colorful ribbon in my hair and excitement in my eyes. That is love.
Most of all, Ella has taken me back to the future — back to my childhood and the childhood of my now-adult children, and back to the love of those days that I feared I had forever lost to the tarnishing of time.
When Dad and I browse through our favorite dollar store to find the perfect envelope gifts for Ella, I remember those weekly Monday mornings when Dad would take me to the local Five ‘n Ten and buy me a new outfit for my dolls. A story about the Letter People evokes images of my son and daughter leaping from the school bus to excitedly tell me about meeting “Miss A who goes A’choo” and learning about “Mr. T who has Tall Teeth.”
When my son was in fourth grade, he wrote a story about Jake and Bertha, two little people with big hearts. Decades later, I resurrected Jake and Bertha in “Princess Ella and the Snow People.” In the Princess Ella stories, every bee that buzzes, daisy that dances, and star that sparkles pays homage to my daughter, the little girl — and now adult woman — with the smiling eyes.
I fill my stories with happy lessons and joyful curiosity so that both Ella and I grow together in love. My words that “school is cool when everyone follows the Golden Rule” make Ella a more loving classmate and me a more caring teacher. “Monday the Monkey, Tuesday the Tiger, Wednesday the Wren, Thursday the Turtle, Friday the Fish, Saturday the Seal, and Sunday the Swan” remind me to cherish each day. Love, as defined by another story, is “the special bricks needed to build a loving house and a community of unity.”
Princess Ella learns about love from her parents and then shares her insights with me. Perhaps years from now, she will pass those lessons of love — and the “once upon a time” stories of love” – to her daughter, granddaughter, or great-niece. She will explain that love involves giving and accepting, imagining and exploring, and putting aside petty differences to celebrate similarities. Love, she will add, is not at all confusing when it nurtures and nourishes — and enables someone as jaded as Aunt Ronna to find value in herself and to enjoy a “lovingly ever after” life.
I have been fortunate to travel through life with three role models. Grandma taught me to get up and go about my business, no matter what troubles I may be experiencing. Ma assured me that “this too shall pass.” Dad reminds me that a cud-chewing cow has a more sensible look than a gum chewing girl, that hot Ovaltine in the winter and a cold chocolate phosphate in the summer will cure all problems, and that in the words of Rudyard Kipling, it is good to “keep my head when all about you are losing theirs.” All three encouraged me to read and dream, write and create.
As a part-time faculty member of the University of Pittsburgh’s English Department, I work as a consultant at the school’s Writing Center. I also teach Freshman Programs, a course that introduces students to the University and the city. My work, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in “New Slang: A New Literary Voice by the Women’s and Girls of Pittsburgh” (online); Quality Women’s Fiction; Ghoti Online Literary Magazine; First Line Anthology; The Road Elsewhere (Scribes Valley Publishing – third place); Welcome to Elsewhere (Scribes Valley Publishing – third place); When We Are (Scribes Valley Publishing – second place); SLAB: Sound and Literary Artbook; Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine (online and print); AARP Bulletin (online and print); Healthy Roots (Forbes Health Foundation and Hospice); The Jet Fuel Review (Lewis University’s online literary journal); Writer’s Relief (online); and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette.
— Ronna L. Edelstein
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