I’m all grown up now, approaching forty, a mother of two small girls who believe in fairies and magic. With them, I stand before the peanut butter at the grocery store. As they languish in boredom, one in the cart and one out, I spot Peter Pan, a little green figure soaring over the name, his arms outstretched like wings. And I feel the pang of an old longing.
The first time I ate Peter Pan peanut butter was when I was 11 years old, shortly before my mother’s death, at Danielle Kratochvil’s house. The Kratochvils had lived behind us for as long as we’d lived in the house on Carhart, since I was a year old, toddling around the backyard with my hands wrapped tightly around my mother’s index fingers. Danielle was two years older than I was and watched me curiously from her side of the wire fence between our backyards. “Look, Mommy,” she said. “A baby.”
By the time I was five and she was seven, we were the best of friends. Our fence had been worn down and made flimsy by time and undergrowth so that in one place, there was nothing but the remains of a post, no more than a foot high, over which we could step into the next yard and into the vast world of our shared imagination—toward distant lands, castles, battlefields, desert islands, beaches where we lived lives unlike our own, falling in love with strangers, clashing against enemies, rescuing one another.
Pulling my hair back with both hands and wiping summer sweat off my forehead, on the verge of another adventure, I might have told Danielle, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s pretend we’re shipwrecked on a distant land.” We both saw past the rows of American foursquares and into an expansive wilderness, sand sparkling in the sun, the lapping waves of an endless sea. “Pretend,” I continued, the word that wove the world inside her head into the one inside of mine, “that pirates are chasing us.”
“Run!” Danielle yelled, the images converging into one seamless reality.
So we ran, behind the long row of bushes alongside her house, leapt over the root from the maple that had pushed its way toward the house and then reached up from the soil. We ducked near the porch, imagining it to be an enormous boulder, behind which we peeked out to so easily imagine the group of them approaching, a motley crew plunging through the thick dune grass in their hats and boots, the leader waving his sword over his head.
“To the hollow!” I yelled.
“Up on the hill,” she whispered. We looked upwards, our eyes transforming the village around us into rising slopes. We pressed our backs up against the porch and then darted out into the open, the salt of the sea in our hair as our feet carried us over the sand, the rocks, behind a shed, under a picnic table, between the garages, up the Beverly Place sidewalk, toward the crest of a hill that existed inside of us.
At the top of the hill, we were cornered and engaged our pirates in a bitter fight, oak-limb swords waving in the air. We feinted, lunged, flicked, and darted. But alas, “He got me,” cried Danielle as she crumbled to the ground, her long blonde ponytail sprawling in the grass above her head.
“No!” I sobbed, dropping to my knees at her side, holding my hand to my heart.
“There’s a bug in my hair,” she mumbled. “I hear it buzzing.”
“Dani, come on,” I said. “You’re supposed to be dying.”
“Oh. Yeah.” She laughed before closing her eyes and choking herself into feigned oblivion. I lay down next to her, and after a few seconds of silence, she asked if she could come back to life.
“Sure,” I said. “But how?” The issue wasn’t whether or not she could return from death but instead simply how we would fold out the impossible from the tangible fabric of something believable. Miracles were nothing if they weren’t believable.
“How ‘bout a fairy?” she said.
“Pixie dust,” I mumbled. “Perfect.”
We closed our eyes, breathed in the muster to drum up our fairy, so that when we looked again with a soft sigh, I found the fairy easily in the air over our piece of lawn. Her arms floated over her head, her fingers so small and long that they were almost translucent at the ends. I watched as her blonde curls bounced with her movements. She pulled her index finger to her lips and said “Shhh,” sparkling dust falling over us like snow. In the quiet miracle of Danielle’s resurrection, the sun emerged, from behind a streak of white, blinding us until we looked away to find each other and the yard around us glittering and golden. Shadows of Danielle’s tree moved through the magic of our imagined world, and an unfamiliar lightness filled me. I was a thread spun through the fabric of the world, which felt so enormous and malleable to me, overflowing with such smoothness and loveliness. For a few seconds, I believed in the miracle of fairies and resurrection with all of my heart. My heart pounded with the heat of possibility. I was filled with a kind of nourishment that seemed essential in only a way children can understand.
Behind us, Danielle’s front screen door opened, and we turned to see her father standing there expectantly. “I gotta go in,” she said, pushing herself up off the ground.
The scent of dinners–hers, mine, and others–filled the air of the neighborhood, smelling like exotic dough and sauce and meat. Danielle disappeared into her house while I crossed the fence and returned to mine, to my mother at the kitchen sink, her head turning over her shoulder to smile at me as I stepped through the back door, the magic outside transforming into the measured ease of familiarity. “Hey, Mama,” I said.
She smiled, told me our macrobiotic meal of tofu, veggies, and brown rice was almost ready. I made sure to save my disappointed sigh for after I’d left the kitchen. The smell of dinner on my side of the fence was different from Danielle’s. On summer nights like this, her family would sometimes gather in the backyard, drink soda out of disposable cups and beer out of cans, grill things like hot dogs, hamburgers, and marinated chicken, food that made a smell so wonderful that when it came across the fence, through our unkempt garden of organic herbs and veggies, and into our open windows in the summer, I took pause just to savor it.
Our family did not have cookouts or disposable dinnerware. We did not eat hot dogs or hamburgers or chicken. We did not eat dairy or artificial flavors or dyes or refined sugars. We did not buy chips. My parents did not drink coffee or alcohol. For breakfast, while my parents listened to public radio, I ate fruit-juice sweetened organic Os, over which I poured water most often, never milk, not even soy milk, which was usually too expensive. I had only ever had one soda–an RC Cola I was given at a picnic with extended family who did not share our dietary habits. Mom saw me take it, raised her eyebrow at my look of longing, then after a slow sigh, she shrugged and nodded. So I’d wrapped both my hands around the cold can, widened my eyes at it, popped it open, heard the familiar exhalation of carbonation, and drank the whole thing in under a minute. Back at home, I vomited for more than an hour and collapsed into a heap on my bed. My mother lay a cool washcloth on my forehead and told me that my body was just not used to all that sugar and all those chemicals. “I wanted you to find out for yourself,” she said as I shook with fever, “just how terrible that stuff is.”
And I believed her.
Our lifestyle, the rulebook we followed, was in part an attempt to save Mom’s life. She and Dad believed that diet was what made or broke our bodies. Food, they believed, could strengthen her white blood cells, clarify the messages her body sent itself, relieve it of the inflammation that would make it turn on itself.
It had all started shortly after her diagnosis, when she booked us all a stay at Boston’s Kushi Institute to learn the macrobiotic diet created by a man named Michio Kushi who said it could cure cancer. During our stay, we spent hours in the large kitchen where I sensed a kind of alchemy in the transformation of plants into meals, and it fascinated me. We learned the differences between yin and yang foods, about the body’s own power to heal itself. As the adults around me wielded knives that chopped almost impossibly quickly over cutting boards full of green leaves, I believed in the magic of food to save lives. I believed in the magic inside my mother.
When we returned home, she threw away all of the food in our house that didn’t meet with macrobiotic requirements. For breakfast, we ate miso soup and roasted seaweed. We ate vegetable stir-fries over brown rice for most meals. She abandoned chemo and radiation. She refused a mastectomy. She didn’t need it. Macrobiotics would save her life.
Meanwhile, the Kratochvils proceeded with the life forbidden to us, eating food that would cause or worsen cancer, watching too much cable television, and throwing away Styrofoam that would pollute the earth. Yet I secretly envied them, imagined myself sipping their soda and eating their food.
It was shortly before I was 10 years old that the Kratochvils called my parents to ask if they wanted to contribute to the cost of a better fence between our properties, one that would give both families more privacy. My parents were offended by the request, for both the call for privacy and the notion that they should pay for it. Everyone in the neighborhood could plainly see that the Kratochvils had more money than we did. And so we refused. And the new fence went up without our help, the latch on the Kratochvils’ side.
But sometimes, on summer afternoons when the smell of cheeseburgers snaked its way over the fence from the Kratochvils’ house, I wondered about the taste of normality, on the other side of the line that marked the boundaries of my life. That was the thing about my family’s kind of magic—it seemed to be about what we couldn’t have and where we couldn’t go. To live, my mother had to stay inside these parameters.
To get to Danielle, I had to push my fingers through the gap between the gate and the fence to push the latch up. Doing so would often leave me with splinters on the back of my hand. But that didn’t stop me.
On occasion, Danielle forgot that her food was forbidden to me– “Want an Oreo?” she might ask. And I’d stare at the wheels of black and white and admire their uniformity, their purity in color, their thick, powdery sweet smell. I watched as she twisted one apart, licked the inside, and laughed. “Haven’t you seen the commercial?” she asked then thought better of the question and shoved the whole cookie in her mouth.
I didn’t have cable television, and unless it was at Danielle’s house, I didn’t see commercials. But her eating it like that in front of me was advertisement enough. I wanted it intensely and felt a pang of anger. If it weren’t for my mother, I thought, I could have an Oreo. I could have the peanut butter, Peter Pan, the thick, shiny, golden substance I saw for the first time when Danielle was spreading it on a piece of clean white bread, as white and smooth as a piece of paper. It spread like nothing I’d ever seen before, so easily and evenly from one corner to another, in slow circles. Peanut butter, at my house, was nothing like this. It was a darker, hard substance, barely penetrable, that my mother had to mix into
“I wish,” I told my mom once, when I had felt the courage unexpectedly, “that I could eat a doughnut.” We were in the car, on our way home from visiting Pa Seldon, the man who stood in as Mom’s father and my grandfather. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the old man had nothing but canned baked beans and plain doughnuts. I had spent much of the visit staring at the soft decadence of his doughnuts. And now that I’d spoken, my desire felt like a sin. I cringed as I waited for my mother to respond.
“The problem,” Mom said after only a brief, thoughtful pause, “is that if you never get any joy out of your food, it can’t really be that good for you. There has to be joy in it.” She turned to Dad, who was driving. “He loves those doughnuts,” Mom said, talking about Pa. She rested her hand on Dad’s shoulder, turned and smiled at me over her shoulder. “Maybe it’s what we believe about our food that matters.” She swallowed hard and sighed, realizing something then, for the first time. Then she nodded and shrugged. “Maybe just being happy is enough.”
“Enough for what?” asked Dad.
“Just enough,” she said, turning to look out her window, her eyes distant and steady.
Maybe it was the next day, when Dad was at work, that she asked if I’d take a walk with her. There was something she wanted us to do. I agreed, curiously, and walked down to the end of Carhart with her as she swung her arms happily, telling me stories about being a girl growing up in Florida without any cares. “I used to be fearless,” she said. “I ran shirtless, swam with gators in the canals, killed rattlesnakes with nothing but a stick.” We passed the car dealership that had once been an apartment building before it burned down. “Nothing scared me,” she said, laughing at herself, shaking her head. “Not like now.” I imagined this former version of her, balanced the then and the now as we passed the old furniture store, the stone church, Lane’s Beverages, and the Great American grocery store where we crossed the street, and she led me into Burger King. “Stephie, I’ve never taken you here before. But I’m going to today. When I was a kid, I used to eat fishwiches. And I loved them.” We paused for a moment before the door. “Today we’re not going to be afraid of delicious food, okay? Just for today, it can’t hurt us.”
I nodded, both afraid and delighted, an intersection that felt something like pushing my hand through the Kratochvils’ fence. Mom pulled open the door, and I was immediately mesmerized by the smell, something I’d only ever caught distant traces of. Now I was inside of it as my mother ordered two “fishwiches.”
“Two Big Fishes?” the girl in a visor behind the register said.
Minutes later, we were given a paper bag from which Mom pulled the two sandwiches, one of which she handed to me. We ate them as we walked back home in the sun, everything in the world disappearing to me but the taste in my mouth and my mother’s voice. It wasn’t that I wasn’t worried; I feared that there would be a price for what we were doing, that maybe this food would feed the thing inside my mother that threatened her life. But I ate the sandwich anyway, letting it fill me. I could hardly remember anything in my life ever tasting quite like it. Only when it was gone did the world reappear. When we stood together in front of the house on Carhart, she looked down at me and smiled. “Pretty good, isn’t it?” she asked.
I nodded, drew in a deep breath, and sank myself into the depth of that moment, steadying myself, knowing how the past and the future would pull at me.
The cancer spread. Mom weakened. She stayed at the hospital longer and longer until she finally came home as a Hospice patient. It could seem, during those months, that there was nothing good left in the world, no delight. Or hope. But one afternoon after school, I found myself in Danielle’s kitchen, in front of an open cabinet, and I remembered the peanut butter. As she searched for an after-school snack, I reached for the plastic Peter Pan jar, opened it, and stuck a spoon into the succulent golden goodness to pull out a heaping mound.
Danielle watched, her eyes wide in shock. A part of me watched, too, as I put the spoon in my mouth and pressed it up against the roof of my mouth, salty and sweet, melting slowly around my teeth. Finally I had crossed the line, knew what it felt like to eat something with such perfect, uniform texture, the color of gold, a substance that looked as though I could slide right through it.
“Whacha think?” she asked.
“Amazing,” I said, peanut butter sticking to the roof of my mouth, making it hard to speak. It was better even than the fishwich. I stood there, totally entranced until all of it had dissolved. And with the taste still lingering, I told her “Thank you.”
Late on a Friday night, Dad woke me after midnight to tell me it had happened, that Mom was gone, and he led me downstairs to her bed to tell her “goodbye.” He picked up the phone and called the friends and neighbors he promised to notify. Among them was Jackie Kratochvil, Danielle’s mother who read Vogue magazine and who smelled of Clinique. She came in the back door quietly and red-faced. I watched her from Mom’s big blue chair in the front room of the house as she stood next to my mother, held her limp hand, and spoke words I could not hear. Then she turned toward me with sad, soft eyes. I could almost tell what she was thinking. There was pity there. But there was something else too. Gratitude. She was thankful it wasn’t her.
I thought about Danielle, asleep on the other side of the fence, warm in her bed. Jackie would return to her, through the dark, to their side of the fence, and on my side, my mother lay still and cold and white on a hospital bed, her hair combed flat to the side, her mouth tightly closed.
I wished then that I had always lived warmly in my bed, on the latch side of the gate, pizza for dinner, Peter Pan for lunch. The truth, it seemed, was that magic, if it existed at all, lived somewhere else. Not there, not in the house on Carhart. Not in the quiet darkness of my fate.
When Jackie and the rest of the grieving guests left that night, my mother’s body was carried away, out the front door, down the front walk, and into a car that disappeared into the night and left us without her on Carhart Ave. In my bed, I closed my eyes and imagined that I was Danielle, and in the warmth of her bed and the glow of hall light that spread itself beyond the threshold of her bedroom, I found a glimmer of hope.
Dani and I drifted apart. Even when I joined her at the high school, a year and a half after Mom died, she sat on the other side of the cafeteria. We smiled at one another when we passed each other in the halls.
In her junior year, the high school put on Peter Pan. Dani and I were both cast as Indians, and on show night, when we went out on stage, crouched down, our faces covered with makeup, our hair tight in braids, our arms straight to our sides with our mouths open, I looked over to her, on the other side of the stage, hoping she’d look back. There in Neverland, we were surrounded by magic.
“You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts,” Peter Pan had said earlier in the night, “and they lift you up in the air.” But now he was waving to Wendy, who could no longer fly. “Good-bye,” he said.
He left her there, along with me and Danielle, who never returned my stare. Around us was a sense of emptiness and loss into which I felt pulled heavily. We were growing up, losing something in the glow of the golden theater lights as Peter disappeared.
“Don’t go,” I wanted to call out. There was so much to be lost, so much to hang on to, so much fear, as we transcended the boundary between what we had always been into what we were becoming.
I grew up, became a mother myself. When my daughter Sophia was six years old, she came home from school and asked me what a Happy Meal was, that all of the other kids in school were talking about them, and they picked on her for not knowing what they were. So I took her for the next best thing, to Burger King on 5thStreet Highway in Temple, Pennsylvania, just a few minutes from where we now live. “Two fish wiches,” I said to the girl in the hat behind the register.
“Two Big Fishes?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Sophia and I took them out into the parking lot and ate them leaning against the car as the sun cast golden streaks of afternoon heat on our shoulders. It felt almost like Mom was there with us somehow, reminding us, me, of something.
“Mom,” she said, her mouth half full and staring dreamily at her sandwich. “This is really good.”
“Yeah,” I said, as the world around me disappeared.
Michio Kushi, the man who had promised that diet could cure cancer, died of cancer in 2014, several years after his wife succumbed to the disease. In response, people called him a liar and a failure. The macrobiotic diet couldn’t save anyone, not even him. But his family responded steadfastly that perhaps macrobiotics had saved him in ways invisible to us. Maybe it had saved him from an earlier onset of cancer. Maybe things would have been much worse for him if he’d not been on the diet. Maybe his cancer was genetic and was going to manifest no matter what. Maybe his diet held it off for as long as was possible. And maybe they’re right. Maybe somehow he was better off. Because there is no way to compare what did happen to what could have happened, we may never know when we are saved or just how much magic happens around us. But it is in the possibility of a world without belief that we face off with a world without magic.
Years after she died, I found one of my mother’s diaries in which she wrote, “My biggest fear is that if I die, Stephanie will think this fight for my life was all for nothing. And she won’t know how to believe anymore.”
I gripped the diary tightly, wondering if I did know how to believe anymore. Was faith itself more important than surviving? Is what we believe more important than what actually is?
Maybe that was just the thing. Maybe macrobiotics saved my mother in some way. And maybe the fishwich did too. Maybe Peter Pan saved me.
I stare at him on the grocery store shelf, neatly lined up with a dozen other versions of himself, and I remember all the magic of childhood. It seemed to exist outside of me, on one side of the fence or the other. It seemed conditional, based on a result, inside of a rule or outside of it. But maybe magic was bigger than all of that. Maybe it existed, simply, wherever I was. And I had crossed over so many lines. I had lived inside the rules and outside of them, in both pleasure and necessity. I had lived before the hope and after it, inside certainty and outside of it. I had felt the way reality cast its light on belief and how belief had cast its light on reality.
“Just think lovely, wonderful thoughts,” Peter said. All this time, I thought my mother lost her fight–that following all those rules about what to eat and what not to eat had been futile. But maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe those rules are like gates that create something to believe in. I’d never have believed in macrobiotics if I’d not known about Peter Pan peanut butter and Oreos. And I’d never have loved Peter Pan and fishwiches had it not been for living so long inside the macrobiotic diet. Up and down, left and right—they create each other. We form our adult selves in whimsical Neverland. I can still remember the quiet miracle of old childhood resurrections, the sun emerging from behind a streak of white, blinding me and Dani until we looked away, lightness threading itself through us and the large, smooth, lovely world. I remember the sound of Fuji knives slicing green veggies in the Kushi Institute kitchen. I can still taste the fishwich.
“Sissy hit me,” screams my littlest girl, from inside the grocery cart as I pull the jar of Peter Pan from the shelf, unafraid, and put it into the car next to my kale.
“Mom,” Sophia protests, “all I did was push her leg away from me because she keeps kicking me.”
I shake my head and try not to smile. Here, now, it is so easy to see both sides, to exist at the border where worlds and beliefs and identities have clashed, push my hand through that small gap between the wood, splinters be damned, and open the gate.
My girls take a couple more swings at one another, flicks and darts, and somehow in the skirmish, a fingernail catches my three-year old who shrieks and sobs.
I pull her little arm to my lips, using my best soft Mommy voice. “Shhh,” I say. “Mommy kiss it,” which I do. “See?” She quiets. Her lips curl into a dreamy smile, her wet eyes gleam. Others pass us by. “Mommy’s kisses are magic,” I tell her.
And she believes me.
Stephanie J. Andersen is an essayist focused on the journeys that exist between trauma and healing. Her work has been Notable in Best American Essays and nominated for three Pushcart prizes. She is an Instructor of Writing at Reading Area Community College, an environmental activist, and a mother to two beautiful girls. She lives with her family near Reading, Pennsylvania. Find out more at www.stephaniejandersen.com.