Helen was born in Dunbar, West Virginia, on April 26, 1928. She laughs at newspaperman Jim Dent’s description of “a fate worse than Dunbar.” Her elementary through high school education all took place in a single block and only three blocks away from her home. After Helen worked a year in an office in Charleston, “hating every minute,” her youngest brother came out of the Navy with an engineering degree and helped send Helen to West Virginia University, where she majored in social work.
From 1950 until 1966, Helen worked in several states (sometimes part-time during child rearing years) as a social worker or as an administrator of programs for children and families. She describes her five children as the most important people in her life — sustaining, inspiring, and sheltering her with their love.
After retirement, Helen returned to live in a little house decorated with sage siding and purple shutters and doors, just down the street from the big box of a house where she was born. Her essay describes her experiences as a fairy maker artist and her journey into creative thinking and doing after retirement.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Helen’s fifty-year-old son died the day before she wrote Returning to Fairyland. She describes the essay as something that “just poured out” of her.
This essay defines place as the world of imagination, and childhood as both the writer’s own tender years as well as those of her grandchildren and future generations of children.
Childhood can be a place of magic that allows our lifelong visitation, if only we will believe and trust.
Without further ado, Esse Diem is proud to present the writing of Helen Basham.
Returning to Fairyland
As a child in the 1930s, I barely set foot in Fairyland because I was enthralled with Hollywood fantasies of Shirley Temple, dimpled and dancing with her honey ringlets bouncing up and down. When I grew up a little, I pretended to be a slim, slinky, sexy, smoking siren with brightly painted finger-nailed hands dangling a cigarette in an elongated holder. It was not until I was sixty-four years old that I came to the enchanted place known as Fairyland — and through the back door at that.
I was working as a therapeutic social worker in Adams County,Colorado. Hot August days and the occasional nights were filled with stressful experiences with needy families as well as neglected and abused children. A chance for relief came with a call for help from my younger son, Byron, who lived in Atlanta,Georgia. His wife Pamela had just delivered their second daughter. This birth had been late and difficult and baby Lea, who weighed in at over 10 pounds, proved to be a crier. Byron started a new job in New Orleans and needed to be away from home. Moving the family as planned would have to wait until the new mother and baby were ready. They asked me to come to be with them and to help care for their older child, three-year-old Deanna.
For days after my arrival, Lea cried a lot and Pamela, who was in pain, kept struggling to comfort her. She had the help of a breastfeeding specialist who advised that we ply her breasts with frozen peas and cold cabbage leaves. Eventually, it became obvious that Lea was not tolerating her mother’s milk but that discovery was a long time coming. In the meantime, Pamela was a tired but happy sport. We had fun with the vegetable treatments and with the sweet red-haired monster baby and with little Deanna who, even then, was an exotic looking brunette with bedroom eyes and a mind of her own.
This firstborn child was understandably fixated on her mother. Pamela usually was tied up with the fussing baby or with trying to grab a much-needed nap. If Deanna had any need or hurt, she cried for her mother.
I dug deep into my psyche to find something to divert her attention.
I found fairies there.
I introduced them to Deanna. We blew bubbles and the pixies only we could see floated on them. They invaded the backyard, swinging on trees and sitting in flowers, and when Deanna had a hurt, they came to kiss the boo-boo and dry her tears. I took extra vacation days from my Colorado job and consequently went deeper into Fairyland, pulling my granddaughter with me.
I think she may have played around there for a while, but I, the grandma, took my Fairyland with me back to Colorado and into the rest of my life.
For Christmas of that next year my daughter Murk and I searched for fairy figures all over the mid-western part of the country. We found none that piqued our imagination that were inexpensive enough for us to buy as a gift for Deanna, so we decided to make our own.
This decision led to several years of our being obsessed with using our artistic inclinations to create fairies to match our visions. The nice thing about fairies is, though they show up in nearly every culture, no one really knows what they look like. They opened the doors to my imagination which had been closed for almost forty years.
Murk is mechanically talented. She guided me through the struggle to create little life-like figures. After trying papiere-mache and other materials, we found Skulpy, a polymer clay that could be hand-worked and then cured in a home oven. We sculpted it around a copper wire armature which we bent to the shapes and positions of dancing, sitting, twirling and reclining fairies. I depended on Murk to make the first figures because my eye-hand coordination, space perception, and mechanical abilities were not well-developed. I had never been a good typist and I was forty years old before I was comfortable driving a car. Working with my strong and artistically talented daughter, however, and being motivated by my imagined fairies, I was finally able to make the fairies without help. The first little creatures we made resembled aliens, but when we added shiny glass bead eyes, they came to life.
As a child, I always liked to draw and was interested in color and painting, but I had no art education in school after “fill in” color sheets. I took an art class at the University but my artistic interest was squelched by a teacher who led me to believe I was wasting my time and that I had no talent. With the fairies, however, a strong inner voice took over and silenced all others, and I was drawn into a world of color and design. I became so excited about some color combinations of net or paint that I would get up out of bed after midnight and go into the kitchen where the fairy was waiting, just so I could look again at what I had created.
The Fairy Factory
After retiring from my job in Colorado, I came back to Dunbar, West Virginia, and bought a little house just down the street from the house where, over sixty-six years before, I was born. I set up my fairy factory in the kitchen at a big round table with a plastic cover. My fairies had been juried into the Cedar Lakes Arts and Craft fair in Ripley in January. From then until July, I established my company called Gossamer Wings and I made fairies night and day.
Murk sent fairies from Colorado for me to paint and dress and she brought feisty elves made in her own style. My youngest daughter, Lisa, was also fairy-addled, and she sent her own handmade fairies, mermaids and a dragon from Rockville, Maryland. Her sculptures were different from mine and from the ones made by Murk. She has sandpaper palms inherited from her father and her figures were smooth and sweet. My oldest daughter, Tamara, a teacher and mother of three young children, was our main cheerleader. Her husband John, an art teacher and Renaissance man, crafted huge dragonfly wings to highlight our booth. My two sons Byron and Rob also brought their families to Cedar Lakes to help with setting up, selling and taking down. My children’s father and his wife also came to be with us and to help. We made about two thousand dollars in fairy sales, probably almost enough to pay our expenses. We also spent time playing together in the pool and enjoying the fair.
The family reunion and the creative fervor aroused from making our fairies and introducing them to the world were precious dividends.
The factory continued for a few years after the fair when adults and children came to workshops around my kitchen table to learn to express their own fairy visions. When I was asked by a skeptical adult friend if I really believed in fairies, one of my preteen fairy makers, Paula Kaufman, responded from the kitchen.
She said that fairies are spirit and certainly are real.
Ice Cream Fairies
Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream is a shop on Capital Street in Charleston, West Virginia. The owner, Ellen Beal, is a flutist with the West Virginia Symphony and a fairy fancier. She commissioned an “ice cream fairy” to be hung in her shop. The figure was larger than usual and made with a more durable polymer than most that was difficult to work. The results were satisfying and the fairy, holding an ice cream cone, was very noticeable hanging over the café section of the shop. I have to admit to being quite proud of that girl. She stayed there for a few years before she was stolen. Her replacement was a very different lady which eventually broke and was later remade to hold a cone in her hand. If you are in town, stop in for a delicious ice cream cone and see my fairy hanging over the cash register. I think it is the last one to be seen in a public place.
The Fairy House
Another captive of the fairy fever was Richard Nease. Richard and his wife Mary lived with their family on a farm in Putnam County. They made furniture and art pieces from natural materials from the farm to be sold at Tamarack, a center for the sale of works by West Virginia artists. Richard was a wonderful teacher who led workshops for children at Creative Capers, an art camp at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Charleston. Making fairy houses was one of the most popular projects at the camp. I paid Richard to make a fairy house for me to sell at a winter art boutique. The parents of Paula, my fairy-making friend, bought it for one hundred dollars. Their children are grown but the fairy house is lighted and decorated and inhabited by fairies during the winter holidays.
Richard made another fairy house for me. It is kept in my garage because it is too big for my little house. Richard died suddenly of a heart attack when he was in his sixties. Mary Nease told me after his death that he had much pleasure making the fairy houses. My great-granddaughter, Mary Kathryn, visits the fairy house often and takes other children in to see it. She places little treasures that she picks up from her walks in the house for the fairies that live there.
The Last Fairies
The next experience in this art form was much more difficult and time-consuming. My sculpting skills had improved and I guess I wanted a new challenge. I sculpted heads with expressive faces and hands and attached them with a heavy wire armature .Their bodies were made with quilt batting covered with soft muslin to form a soft sculpture.
As I am sewing-challenged, it took me months to make one. Then I sought help from Averill Howard, my artist and seamstress friend, to help with costumes. One fairy doll was given to my young friend and fairy maker, Paula, for her bas mitzvah. The other doll, a Persian jinn (a male genie), was purchased by a friend, Annette Zavarii. The face was fashioned after a picture of her Iranian American husband, Hasan. After he died, Annette gave the doll back to me because she said it made her sad. I sat the jinn in my kitchen planning to display it somewhere in my little house. A friend saw it and said it was “cute.”
Then, my loving adult granddaughter, Karin, said it made her feel “creepy.”
I decided it was time for me to quit the fairy business.
Returning to Fairyland
I am so glad to be here again. There are other neighborhoods I am finding in this place where imagination is set free and creative energy is unleashed. I’m taking another path as I begin to express my feelings, thoughts and memories in writing poems and memoirs. I am also beginning to consider fictitious stories about ancestors I barely met while climbing my family tree.
I think I’ll write a novel or, since I’m eighty-three, maybe a novelette.
No matter what, I will always be a part of Fairyland, and that place a part of me.