MY first memory is of my mother, dark and shapeless in a movie theater. I am barely two years old, tucked into her shadow as a bright blue genie screams at a young Arabian thief. The screen is red and menacing and I am afraid.

Early in my life, two things are established: my mother’s steadfast presence and the spellbinding creations of Walt Disney. At four years old, I decide that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is my favorite movie. I wear out our VCR. The grotesque witch gives me nightmares as she brews a poison for her 14-year-old stepdaughter. She is behind the shower curtain one night, lurking in my bedroom closet the next. I do not tell my mother about the nightmares. I ask her to rewind the tape again and again.

My mother is, at this moment, a stay-at-home parent. When I am older, I will discover that this is only the latest in a long line of roles she plays, from sign language interpreter, travel agent, and stewardess to small business owner, teacher, and photographer. There is nothing that she is incapable of achieving once inspired. She is the reason why my sister and I have matching sets of homemade dresses, why we experiment with acrylic paints and ballet and piano. Her passion for life is infectious. Under her guidance, there is nothing that we are incapable of achieving, either.

For my fifth birthday, she sews me a Snow White costume, resplendent in yellow and cobalt satin with a matching red cape and stiff white collar. In the backyard, my aunts and uncles sweat under felt caps and cotton batting beards so the pint-sized guests can visit with the seven dwarfs. My mother does everything well, and birthdays better. It is the happiest day of my short life.

• • •

I don’t remember when the silence first sprouts between us, but I remember fourth grade art class. My sister and I spend hours learning how to wield oil-based paints and charcoal pencils. She has a natural talent for watercolors. Soon, her wildlife portraits cover the walls of the living room, each hung with a blue ribbon. Between art shows, my father manages print sales and my mother makes plans for my sister’s future gallery.

One afternoon, my mother pulls me from art class. The pastels have erupted under my care, smudged into a hazy shade of puke-green against a fuchsia flower. Across the table, my sister maneuvers the pastels into a seascape of vibrant blues and greens. The only color I see is red. Tears splash over the canvas, every stroke taking the drawing further away from the picture in my imagination.

My mother steers me toward the empty auditorium, my face pressed hot and wet against her side.

“Your sister is just better at art,” she tells me. “It’s not one of your gifts. You should be happy for her.”

I sift through her good intentions and keep the core of her message in my pocket. I am not a good artist. I will never be a good artist. It is the first time that I realize my mother thinks differently of my sister and me. It is the first time that she confirms the doubts clouding my mind. When we get home from school, I put my paintbrushes and second-place ribbons away.

Two years later, I am twelve years old and my mother is packing our suitcases for Europe. We navigate the cramped London streets to see the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, a city-wide parade celebrating her 50th anniversary on the throne. Above the crowds, I catch a glimpse of the royal family packed into a golden fairytale carriage. The Queen looks small and frail as she waves to her subjects, hardly the Technicolor dream of my Disney movies at home.

In France, my parents surprise us with an impromptu trip to Disneyland Paris, where the cast members never smile and my mother gets sick on turkey legs at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. We duck into a small theater for a new production called Animagique. As the lights dim, a young British girl pipes reassurances to the audience over the loudspeakers.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s not scary-dark, it’s just dark-dark!”

My mother giggles all the way back to the hotel room. “It’s not scawy-dark.” Her fake accent comes out in a squeak. “I can’t do it. Ashley, do the voice!”

I tilt my head and affect a British lilt to see my mother laugh again and again. I will do anything to make her laugh. Maybe being funny can be my thing, I think. Maybe this is what I’m good at doing.

I become addicted to my mother’s approval almost as quickly as I become addicted to the things she doesn’t approve, like PG-13 movies and the Backstreet Boys. I am thirteen years old. I have traded my Disney princesses for the platinum-haired elves and hairy-footed hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I am a card-carrying fanatic, spending hours researching Middle Earth on library computers and smuggling copies of my friends’ well-worn novels on the weekends. My mother sits me down on our living room couch.

“This isn’t normal,” she warns me. “It’s not right to be obsessed with books about magic. I think that you might be under the control of a demonic influence.”

I imagine wisps of shadowy demons creeping into my soul as I sleep, whispering their names in elvish. I don’t know why hobbits mark the pathway to hell, any more than the witches and sorcerers of my Disney childhood do not. I cannot bring myself to question my mother’s judgment. The thought of demonic possession is almost as frightening as the thought of losing her approval. I stop sneaking glimpses of the films on TV and keep only a small blue diary with an elf imprinted on the cover. In it, I write, “I wish my mom would read this. Then she would know how I feel.” She never does.

Instead, we begin the cycle over again. For each fault she unearths, each tearful accusation she makes, I find my ability to confide in her slipping away. Eventually, our talks become one-sided. I am caught between wanting her to know me and wanting her approval. I learn how to hide the parts of myself that displease her so that she will smile at me again.

• • •

During my first semester in college, a fire ravages the lush, sloping hills of the campus. Flames lick the inside of faculty houses and gut the innards of psychology classrooms and dorm halls, digesting everything but my C- midterm. I survive, along with 1,800 others in a fireproof gymnasium at the bottom of the hill. I curl up on a cot and try to forget the wailing of my dorm-mates, the thick blue smoke filling the auditorium, the orange flames eating up the brush across the street.

When the sky peels back its blackened skin, buses arrive to shuttle the students to a nearby hotel. My mother drives us two hours south to Disneyland, where the smoke has driven tourists from the park like wild animals. We watch the parade floats waft toward Sleeping Beauty Castle as she twists my hair into pigtails. I swear I can hear the tape rewinding years of my life until I am a bright-eyed five-year-old again.

We create magic in the theme park, soaring over the royal courtyard on Dumbo’s back, tumbling over the edge of Splash Mountain, shopping for Minnie Mouse sweaters in the cool afternoon. She confides her secret childhood wish to be Tinker Bell and recalls stories of late-night escapades with my father in the park, when the gates closed to visitors and opened to employees of the local travel agency. I make her laugh, mimicking the Jungle Cruise guide who deadpans, “Have a wonderful day, and may all your dreams come true” as we disembark the boat. Here, I feel safe with her.

My mother loves me with strength and delicacy, a dichotomy formed from her own tumultuous relationship with my grandmother. She has told me her stories so often that I can map out her childhood memories as if they are my own: the long afternoons as a latchkey kid, the unabated teasing at the dinner table, the day she contracted chicken pox so that my grandmother would spend a day by her side, the sting of rejection when my grandmother left her home alone, again. She carries decades of hurt inside her like a soft wound, like a sharp sword. She is afraid of becoming her mother, and I am afraid that one day, I will fear turning into her as well.

• • •

The last time my family visits Anaheim, I am nineteen years old. My mother and I don’t speak frequently anymore. She writes me long letters telling me about the things that I might be doing wrong. She worries that I will become too close to the opposite sex, that I will read the wrong books and choose the wrong friends. She worries that I will pick the wrong church to attend on Sunday mornings. Mostly, she worries that I will lose my way in the world. Her letters often go unanswered.

The park is hot and crowded. I work up the courage to ride the faulty elevator in the Hollywood Tower of Terror, while my sister discovers firsthand why no one rides in the front of Splash Mountain canoes after 10:00 p.m. We frequent the old-fashioned ice cream parlor to ease the heat of the day and doze on benches before the fireworks display.

As Dumbo soars over the spires of Sleeping Beauty Castle, the bittersweet refrain of “Baby Mine” fills the crackling air. I feel tears softening my vision; beside me, my mother weeps. When the last firework punctures the night sky, we share a brief look.

My father and sister shuffle back through the crowd. I wrap my arm around my mother’s waist and we walk down Main Street, our faces lit by the Penny Arcade lights. She is beside me and inside me. Her passion, her laugh, her words infect my own as we meander toward the gates, in this park that is more than a park, this place that has knit us together in the same wide-eyed, soft-hearted person, half-girl and half-woman.


Ashley Varela is a freelance sportswriter for Lookout Landing and USA Today Sports Weekly. Her sports writing has also appeared on High Heat Stats, Sodo Mojo, Prospect Insider, and Baseball Past and Present, among others. She has published selections of her poetry for The Phoenix and Frostwriting. Ashley lives in Berkeley, California and is currently working on her first book.

MORE: Twitter | Website

BT #013 © 2014 Ashley Varela. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, September 2014.


the trouble
with fairy tales

by ashley varela
follow us: