Backstage in the Refrigerator Box

Every few years, my mom would troll our neighborhood for a good refrigerator box.  Yes, she would drive around looking for an empty box.  For the box, you see, was the perfect shape to be our next puppet theatre.  When she found one, Mom would cut off the top and bottom, and cut a front window in the top of the box, cutting three sides, and attaching a string so that we could pull up the door to close our stage.  She would open the box down one vertical edge allowing us to enter and exit from the back. We decorated the box – gorgeous contact paper flowers in fitting 70’s-era bright colors.  Voila! We were set to go.

The puppets? They lived in wicker-like boxes that had probably held some gift package along the way.  Some were new. Others handed down.  They were friendly and intimidating.  Real puppets and wacky creations that ended up in the boxes.  Our favorites were the knight with the plastic head & face mask armor, the honorable prime minister – aka Asian-looking man with black silk body, and the dragons (known as Draggy), one of which may have been intended as a child’s bath mitt.  Oh, and the well-worn queen, too – whom we called Queenie.

Liz and I would go behind that refrigerator-box puppet stage and enter another world.  To us it was routine, but, looking back on it, I see it as magical.  With those puppets on our hands, Liz and I would create stories.  Our favorite included Draggie, the prime minister and queen and Archie – the villain of our plot.  I think Archie had a longer name, but, four decades later, I have forgotten it.  There was a chase scene and some accents and, no doubt, some backstage giggling.  This story made at least a couple of birthday party appearances at our younger sister’s fête.  Our sisters were captive audiences, our mothers open-minded, and our fee was reasonable – maybe $1/performance.

Our other favorite involved Little Red Riding Hood – we called her “Red.”  Our version of Red’s story involved Grandma, a scary beast of some sort – I don’t think we had a wolf puppet – and Shabbat treats.  This version got some play at our temple’s preschool a couple of times.  We were beloved alum so didn’t need critical acclaim to get in the door.  How we got the stage in the car door, I don’t remember.

That puppet stage is long gone. The puppets now live in my house and my children take them out occasionally, eyeing their aged bodies skeptically.  When the puppets emerge, I am suddenly back behind that cardboard-box stage.  And the memories come flooding back.  I might text Liz a puppet picture and we share a laugh over those childhood creative exploits with references to stories, characters and dialogues that no one else understands.

Those characters, dialogues and plot lines were simple – not sure any of them foreshadowed that both Liz and I would later craft the written word in our professional lives.  The stories didn’t need to be complex.  They were ours.  Our stories had good guys and bad guys.  The good always won in the end.  Of course.  We were kids.  Our lives were, thankfully, blissfully happy and simple.

Today I went to the basement and pulled out the box of puppets. The prime minister has a hole in his body, the knight’s face is crumbling rubber.  Yes, time has passed in their lives.  And those little girls are long adults.  Adulthood is more complex with incredible good in our adult lives, for sure.  But I’d give a lot to resurrect that pink-flowered stage and escape behind it today, to be the puppeteers and write the stories from beginning to happy ending.