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Davey ventured up the dark stairs to his grandmother Maggie’s attic. A small beam of daylight through the lone window showed dust particles dancing like stars, shining a beacon on some old wooden boxes.
To some it was an old dusty den of forgotten junk, but to Davey, the attic was an adventure land of untold tales yet to be discovered. The bicycles hanging from the ceiling turned the gears of his greatest inventions, the dozen-odd chairs were lined up to seat the jury of his client’s murder trial and the clothesline of drying flowers was a forest of vines he had to slash to save the princess from the horrible dragon.
Since he was a small boy, this was his playground on those cold Chicago days when he visited his grandmother’s brick bungalow. Indoor imagination was the only outing possible.
The chill in the early spring air prompted inside activities and a feast for imagination. Luckily, the yellow-tinted sunrays spotlighted the wooden boxes for a new quest. Maybe they could be a throne for the new King David to dispense wisdom. Or a platform for a circus performer to try death-defying feats of amazing skill.
Davey opened the boxes to see what treasures lay within. He quickly dug through them to find dried flowers, some lace, old pins that read “Vote for Women” and “Together We Stand,” some faded sashes and ribbons, gloves and a straw hat.
“Girl stuff,” Davey said wrinkling his nose, taking the straw hat and closed the box.
In another box he found a vest, picture scrapbook and old worn pamphlets and postcards with drawings of lions, buildings, snakes and a big Ferris Wheel. He took the vest and leafed through the illustrations.
“That’s it,” he said jumped up with enthusiasm, putting on the hat and vest and picking up a nearby cane.
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to see the ferocious lions from Africa and slithering snakes from the Far East in the greatest show on earth, Davey’s Carnival,” he shouted, imitating a carnival barker.
The sound of applause coming up the stairs interrupted him when his grandmother appeared, clapping and laughing.
“It sounds grand. I’ll take one ticket, young sir,” Maggie smiled at her creative grandson.
Davey was taken aback by her unexpected arrival but stayed in character.
“Ma’am are you ready to see the strangest and most wonderful things in the universe?” he asked.
“As I stand here before ya, I can’t say as I’d be wondering about anything else,” she said with her thick Irish brough.
Davey laughed, put down the cane and took off the hat, showing his grandmother the treasures he found.
“Gran, I was looking through these boxes and saw some papers with drawings of lions and snakes and a Ferris Wheel. Did you really see those things at this fair?” he asked.
Maggie picked up the straw hat and laughed. “This old thing just never seems to go out of style.”
She sat in an old chair beside him and opened the wooden boxes, slowly sifting through the baubles and trinkets of memories within.
“Aye. These old green eyes seen many and done a few. Me mother always said don’t resent growing old, as many are denied the privilege. I’m glad for me years, but me boy, these momentos are the things that bring memories back to life. The silky feel of an old glove. The lasting smell of dried heather and lavender. Your grandpop loved to bring me flowers. A picture or postcard left behind long ago. It all shows where you been and makes what you are.” She smiled as she lingered on each object.
“Gran, are there any pictures of Ireland? I like when you tell me about the green grass and the sea breezes.” Davey sat at her feet, eagerly looking up at her.
Maggie looked through the boxes and picked up a small picture scrapbook and showed it to him.
“Well, here is the house we lived in. Windermere. It was a beautiful place with acres of green grass all around. You can’t see the green here, but that’s why it’s called the Emerald Isle, you know,” she said as she pointed to the washed-out black-and-white photographs.
“And there’s me mother and here’s one of me and Carrie when we were wee ones,” she said pensively, staring at the pictures. “It was so long ago. Like another lifetime.”
Caroline Stevens and Maggie Donnelly were the best of friends. They grew up together on Windermere, Caroline’s family home on hundreds of sprawling green acres in County Donegal. Mr. Stevens, Caroline’s father, was a country lawyer who came from money.
Windermere was a typical country manor house of the well-to-do, clad in sleek white stone with just enough ivy positioned to make it look respectable.
Thanks to Mrs. Stevens, the décor was stylish and elegant, given that she wished to move into higher circles.
But it was a working farm with farm hands, sheep, horses, fields of crops and green rolling hills.
The house was stately with enough room to keep the family and a small group of servants inside with a coach house for the farm hands. And Maggie’s mother Katherine was the housekeeper, running the small household and tirelessly tending to every need of the family and the home.
As they were both only children and the same age, Caroline and Maggie grew up side by side, like sisters. Caroline—or Carrie, as Maggie called her—was petite with alabaster skin, bright blue eyes and long corn-blonde hair, while Maggie had curly red hair and freckles with piercing green eyes. No one would mistake them for actual sisters.
They romped through the amber and verdant rolling fields endlessly playing each day until exhaustion or the setting sun took hold.
Maggie always protected Caroline from trouble. If there was a pond to cross or fence to jump, Maggie would go first and find a way to keep Caroline from danger or mess. Caroline’s mother liked proper little girls to stay tidy and ladylike.
As little babes, they played with dolls Maggie’s mother made and a tea set Caroline’s mother bought. When Maggie honed her seamstress skills, she created pretty lace doilies and fancy dresses for the new porcelain-faced dolls Caroline begged her mother to buy.
The houseman, Aaron, gave them lessons in numbers and reading for a few hours each day and Caroline’s mother read the Bible to them, but the rest of each day was theirs to imagine, laugh and play carefree. When they were together, the lines between mistress and servant were bare. They were just two little girls.
One day, while running in the forest on the perimeter of the family’s acreage, they found two strange trees off the beaten path where no one could see. They were an odd configuration of two trees a few feet apart that grew together, with their branches of foliage intertwined into a luscious canopy.
As soon as the girls found it, they decided that the branches improbably tangled together were made just for them. It was a special place they could hide away, giggle and tell secrets. Their own private area, where against all logic, the two trees joined to create a wondrous and lovely leafed crown—just like their friendship.
They called it their craobh rún—secret tree fort—and spent many days sitting under the shady leaves, playing games and singing songs. Whittling down branches to a fine point, they scrawled their names in the tree bark to mark it as theirs.
“We dub thee Caroline and Maggie’s craobh rún for now and forever,” young Caroline said, carving her name into one tree.
“Now it’s ours for good,” young Maggie said, etching her name in the other tree.
Sometimes they’d sneak out to look at the stars before they lay their heads down at harboo. Lying beneath the tree, they’d draw pictures in the heavens with their fingers, dreaming and singing a silly rhyme they concocted.
Wish, wish, shining star, make us be who we are, and if ye take us far from ours, keep us forever Anam Cara.
Over time, their starry canopy became a blank canvas to craft elaborate stories of the images they saw in the stars—why they were there or what they were doing. Caroline was particularly talented at creating narratives of the celestial inhabitants and their lives.
Maggie admired her great gift of imagination and tongue for tales, thinking she was blessed with a bit of the blarney in her and maybe her parents had her kiss the blarney stone more than once when she was a wee babe.
Years went by and the girls grew older. They took fewer book lessons and started to learn their trades.
Maggie continued perfecting her seamstress skills and learning domestic skills beside her mother. Caroline’s mother taught her dancing, piano and all the talents and proficiencies necessary to be the lady of the house one day.
Although they spent less time together, they escaped for a few hours to ride horses and chitchat at their secret place, marking drawings and words in the bark. It looked like an album of their relationship from babes to girls to adults.
Even when their days were full of more grown-up endeavors, they would meet at night to discuss their daily adventures and sit out and watch the stars shine in the night sky.
“Mother goes on for days about correct posture, walking, and the right things to wear, say and do to attract and keep the right husband,” Caroline sighed and lay down on the grass. “I’ve had my fill of it.”
“I guess I can count myself blessed by a clover. Ma’s a grand teacher,” Maggie said. “Even when I get me ire up because I can’t do something, she’s patient as a saint. She tells me to count to three and breathe. She says me green eyes always give me away and me temper will get me in hot water someday.”
“I feel like I’m the prized pig getting shined up and dressed in a big bow to earn a blue ribbon, just to get sold to the butcher for dinner,” Caroline explained in frustration.
“Seems like finding a man is a lot of trouble. Me mother lived this long without a man and she’s happy I’m not sure I’ll be wanting one either,” Maggie said.
“Lucky you—I don’t have a choice,” Caroline said, pulling grass and throwing it wildly into the air.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be a while before your ma and pa start making matches for ya,” Maggie assured her.
Caroline sat up with a quick jolt. “No, it’s now. Me ma, I mean my mother, is asking around for the right man. Before you know it, I’ll be married off and be forced to leave my home… and you.”
Maggie took her hand. “Well, that’s that then. Don’t fret, I’ll just make meself part of the deal. Where you go, I go.”
“You would do that for me?” Caroline gasped and smiled, holding Maggie’s hand tightly.
“I’ll always be with ya,” Maggie grinned. “As me mother says, rust never grows on the hinges of good friendships.”
But walking different paths, their divide widened. Maggie’s growing household duties left her little time. And for Caroline, her duty to make herself available and desirable for suitable husbands became all consuming.
Caroline’s mother vigorously made inquiries of nearby households to find the best mate for her pretty, well-brought-up daughter.
For weeks, then months, Caroline’s mother dragged her around and introduced her to every society mother in the county. She finagled invitations to the best parties and dances and marketed her daughter to the mothers while sipping tea. Caroline smiled sweetly, sipped tea quietly and looked pretty for all the mothers, like shoppers looking at window dressing.
“There’s my daughter, Caroline; not only is she beautiful but she takes lessons every day on etiquette and running a household,” her mother bragged. “She’ll be a fine wife for any man who wants to get ahead.”
After many afternoons feeling like a dress in the window waiting for someone to buy her, Caroline confided her sorrows to Maggie in their craobh rún.
“Mother never stops. I constantly feel like I’m being inspected by the mothers. And the sons look a bucket of snots and act the fool eejit,” Caroline said, plopping down on the grass.
“Me mother says there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. There’s not one friendly lad?” Maggie asked.
“No. Aye. I don’t know,” she said, frustrated, while pulling grass and throwing it in the air.
“Since I was a girl, I dreamed of marrying a wonderful and handsome man who would be sweet to me and we’d have lots of babes and live happily ever after. But I don’t have a choice. My mother just wants to find me a man from a fine and wealthy family. Nothing else matters.”
Caroline laid back on the grass in a huff.
“Ya have to believe that he’s out there, and when ya find him, put your grandest smile on, grab him with both hands and don’t let go.” Maggie started drawing on the tree. “But if ya find some frogs along the way, we’ll just have to stick them on the lily pad and wave goodbye.”
They both laughed and Caroline got up and followed Maggie, drawing frogs into the tree.
A month later, Caroline’s mother received an invitation to the Donegal Hall annual ball, the grandest party of the year.
She immediately started Katherine and Maggie working on the perfect ballgown for Caroline. Sapphire blue satin with matching toile and homemade Irish lace would create a stunning dress to complement Caroline’s blonde hair and accentuate her blue eyes.
Maggie used all her stitching skills to craft a magnificent dress for her friend. She made a bodice of the satin and intertwined ribbon in the lace sewn into the sheer sleeves and a wide multi-layered flowing toile skirt with satin underneath.
“This is beautiful my girl,” Katherine said, marveling at the dress. “Everything is so intricate. You’re ready to fly. I’ve nothing left to teach ye.”
Caroline’s eyes widened when she saw the dress.
“It’s fit for a fairy-tale princess,” she smiled. She held the dress up to her chin and twirled around with it, then hugged Maggie.
“I can’t believe I get to wear this. You know me so well.”
“I just hope it gets ya a perfect man of your dreams.” Maggie smiled, pleased her friend loved the dress.
“I will be the most enviable girl at the ball. There’s no stopping me now,” Caroline glowed.
This work is copyrighted (c) 2022 Suzanne Rudd Hamilton, all rights reserved.