By Elaine Harrigan
I grew up in what you might call a creatively bipolar house: mom was creative, dad wasn’t. While my mother sang Gilbert & Sullivan operettas around the house, painted watercolor pictures for holiday decorations, and filled our shelves with books of classic fairy tales. My father taught business classes, coached high school football and mowed the grass.
Until I turned nine, we lived in a one-traffic-light town downstate where you developed an imagination or languished in boredom. In the pre-technology era, we didn’t have video game adventures; we had to make up our own with whatever we had at hand. Empty oatmeal cartons and soup cans, some string and construction paper held as much promise as an arcade, with complete freedom to explore and invent.
Our family eventually moved to Buffalo when my father came to UB on a sabbatical, and we stayed. We were in awe of the “big city,” a metropolis of high rise buildings and multifloor retailers like Hens & Kelly and Hengerer’s which mesmerized us with its animated figures at Christmastime. The opportunities for self-directed discovery made us feel as if we had been dropped in Oz.
Despite all the novelty at our doorstep, it was our imaginations that kept my brothers and me occupied, and out of the kind of trouble that only restless adolescents can devise. The boys eventually dabbled in making 8 mm home movies, once catapulting a cloth dummy over Glen Falls. I became a closet publisher, designing my own magazines with cutout pictures and columns of type produced on my dad’s Smith Corona typewriter.
None of our childhood play turned out to be a waste of time. The oldest of my three brothers is a graphic and digital artist in Orlando, playing drums in a blues band on the side. My middle brother is a therapist who has self-published several books and now writes articles on managing stress for health magazines. The youngest, who always had a knack for assembling the most complicated toys, carried his mechanical genius into the field of security systems, but in his off hours has refurbished vintage Schwinn bicycles and mastered the perfect cheesecake. I made a career in advertising, developing campaigns for some of Buffalo’s most iconic brands, and now do marketing communications for a cultural organization. My work is really just a hybrid of my teenage magazine-crafting, only with a computer and Photoshop.
I’ve learned with age that imagination is like a muscle: if you stop flexing it, it becomes rigid and unresponsive. The times when my imagination seemed completely absent were when everyday work and life demanded rational decision-making and judgment calls – all left brain activity. The right brain – our creative center –needs space, looseness and the ability to suspend judgement while we tinker with myriad possibilities.
What helped reignite my own spark was the arrival of my grandson who is now five. In his infant and toddler years, everything he did was endlessly fascinating and a triumph: the thrill of a slide, the kiss of first snow on his cheeks, the delight of hide and seek. It took me back to a time when my imagination could turn a limited reality into a land of enchantment.
Now that he talks a blue streak, my grandson’s favorite form of entertainment is making up stories. Like most boys, his tales always seem to involve some form of imminent destruction. I hold my tongue and try not to dissuade him by explaining that whales don’t eat submarines. In our imaginary worlds, anything is possible, and should be.
Elaine Harrigan's grandson helps keep the spark of her imagination alive.