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ESSAY
Once Upon a Time…

To cheer a sick friend, six families collaborate on a tale of adventure and create a happy ending.

When my family learned that our friend Erik, a four-year-old born with a rare birth defect, needed to spend almost all of last winter in bed recovering from a difficult surgery, we wanted to help.

“Would Erik like visitors?” I asked his mom. “I'm afraid not,” she said. “The doctors want him to stay as still as possible. With other kids around, he'll get excited and might move too much.” It appeared that all we could do was send a card and a toy, which we did. But that seemed too impersonal. Besides, we wanted Erik to feel remembered and special throughout his ordeal, not just during the first week or two, when many people could be expected to call or send a note.

I was wondering how to accomplish this when I remembered something I'd read about the works of writer Charles Dickens. Before his novels came out as books, they were serialized in magazines. In other words, only a chapter or two was printed in each issue, and, to induce readers to buy the next installment, Dickens ended each chapter with a cliffhanger. I’m no Charles Dickens, but the idea of sending Erik a weekly-serialized story seemed like a fun way to cheer him up.

I called five other families who knew Erik, explained my idea, and asked if they would like to contribute part of the story. “I don’t know,” confided one mom. “A grocery list is the most creative thing I’ve ever written.” But since it was for Erik, she, and the others, agreed to help. I told my co-writers to approach the project however they wanted. Their families could write by hand or computer. They could draw pictures or just send text. But I did ask them to end each chapter, except for the final one, with a suspenseful moment.

My three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and I wrote the first chapter during our “special together time.” (That's the daily time we devote to each other while Mary, my one year old naps.) Elizabeth and I usually work on a craft or read some books, but that day, I gathered her in my lap and explained the serial story project. She was eager to participate. I invited her to choose the theme, and I asked her some questions to make the task manageable.

“Think about Erik and what he likes. What's his favorite toy or game?” I asked.

“He’s always playing pirates,” she said.

“Should we write a story about a pirate, then?”

“Yeah!” she said, full of excitement and ready to go.

Next, I asked Elizabeth what pirates do and where they live. I used her answers to construct the story. We named the pirate Percy, after a favorite dog in the neighborhood, and sent him sailing in search of hidden treasure.

I didn't write much, less than one typewritten page, and it probably took less than 30 minutes. To finish off our chapter, I drew a few pictures for Elizabeth to color.

My husband, Steve, served as critic. He liked the story but said it needed some pirate talk. After adding a few “shiver me timbers” and “ahoy, ye mates,” we were done. The next day, we sent the pictures and chapter to Erik. We also sent a photocopy of the story to the family who had agreed to write chapter two. The following week, the second family sent their chapter to Erik and a copy of the first two chapters to the family writing chapter three, and so on, and so on, until the story was completed.

Erik's mom, Kim, called as soon as they received the first chapter. “Thank you so much. Erik loves getting mail, and the story was great but it ends sort of mysteriously. What happened to Percy after he met that talking parrot?” she asked. I was wondering the same thing, but I said. “Don’t worry. You'll find out.” Every week or so, Kim called with an update, telling us how pleased and surprised Erik was to receive another part of the story from another friend.

The best part came after Erik's recovery when we rounded up all of the contributing families to hear the finished tale. Kim read the story aloud and showed the many incarnations of Percy that different families had drawn.

I liked the green squiggle Percy drawn by one two-year-old, but my favorite rendition came from a six-year-old named Sarah, who created a burly, potbellied Percy with an eye patch, a wooden leg, and a magnificent ship. No matter what Percy looked like, he had glorious adventures. Each family added a unique perspective to the yarn, making it far more varied and interesting than anything Elizabeth and I could have invented ourselves.

Surprisingly, the mom who had doubted her creativity helped write the most memorable part. In her family's chapter, Percy meets a friendly mouse that promises to reveal the secret of the treasure.

“The treasure is inside you,” says the mouse. “It’s not gold, or silver, or buried underground. It's something all of us share.” As Percy learns, the friends he made on his journey are the real treasure. Likewise, although we did not expect it when we started our storytelling journey, those of us who created Percy found that treasure too. We found it in Erik and Kim; we found it in the families who brought Percy to life; and we found it in ourselves. For Elizabeth and me, a winter afternoon in front of the fireplace daydreaming about an adventurous pirate became a moment to share and remember— one made all the sweeter by the fact that we both learned to think beyond our own needs and the limits of our imaginations.

Thankfully, Erik is now better. He runs and jumps and laughs as happily as the rest of his friends. And we’ve found new uses for our serialized stories. When a playmate and her family moved to Paris for three months, Elizabeth and I collaborated with another family on “Gracie the Gray-Eyed Elephant.” Last week, Elizabeth asked if just the two of us could write something for her grandmother who lives far away. “Maybe about Boo Nut, Granny’s cat,” she suggested. “You bet,” I answered. After all, how could I turn down a request that yields such a remarkable reward?

by Margaret Finnegan for FamilyFun Magazine
March 2000