My siblings and I all loved to go visit grandma during the summer months, but the drive always seemed to take so long to get to my grandma’s small house up on West Lake. Sitting on the car's sticky vinyl seats was uncomfortable at best, and sitting still was hard. Swinging our legs was always a distraction and it was so hard. But the ride was always worth it because of the destination, our grandmother's house on the lake. It always meant swimming in those hot summer months, but for me, it meant so much more.
To my sisters being at grandma’s and away from their friends was b-o-r-i-n-g, but I felt it was an exciting escape, especially if my cousin Gail was there, too.
From the beginning Gail was more like my big sister and we two spent hours together creating an imagined world that was filled with lions, bears, and even snakes when we went exploring through grandma’s closet or attic together. The closet was where the buckskin clothing hung, but also where our stories began. At lunch downstairs at the dinner table it could be lie any typical family meal. But when my Grandma began her stories it became a magical place. In our eyes she was one of the best storytellers and would usually begin telling tales as we all began to eat, or even sometimes just when we all had our mouths full of food! From wild animal stories to those of the native Americans who traveled with her father's three ringed circus we were always thrilled with the scary and fun stories she shared with us over dinner.
One of our favorite stories was about the various, “toys,” that were an everyday part of grandma’s life. From the dolls the Native Americans made her, to the old tooth-less lion there was strange and always a fun to scratch and enjoy like some huge stuffed animal she had much to enjoy in her free time in the Fowler Brothers Circus.
One of her favorite toys came every year when the circus was in Alabama during the winter months. The trucks that carried the tents, costumes and of course the performers usually stayed in the small roadside cottages that huddled along the highways all over the coastal areas of the state. Every year they would stop along the roads by swamps or bayous and shop at local fish stands for food, but also something more. They would get supplies, but also look for eggs. But not just any eggs they were searching for alligator eggs. Great-Grandpa Fletcher would bargain for alligator eggs from the local fisherman to hatch for the circus. When they arrived at the motels they’d hide the eggs in the wood boxes that were always near a fireplace to keep them warm. Wrapped in old blankets and turned often to get uniformly warmth these eggs always seemed to hatch out at the most inopportune moment. Hiding them from motel proprietors was always a challenge because insisted that there be no animals in the rooms. Most of the time they insisted on compliance, but with a circus full of animals it was always hard since they were often the only pets that grandma and her sister ever had.
One year as the baby alligators began hatching out and crying like alligator babies do for their mama the landlady just happened to be at the cabin door to collect the monthly rent. She was suddenly startled by what must have seemed to be high pitched screams and took off out the door screaming. She was sure there was something terrible there that was going to get her!” Needless to say that was the last time they spent the winter in that particular motel.
The best part of having baby gators in the circus was of course the fact that for at least two weeks to four weeks these slimy creatures would fit perfectly into the small buckskin doll clothes that the Native Americans in the circus troop had made over the winter months for the homemade dolls the two sisters had for play things.
Wrapped in buckskin and feathers those small alligator dolls were held close as if they were babies as the two girls walked among the wagons and trucks that held the families of the clowns, aerialists, and of course the caged animals in the field behind the motel. As we listened to the stories the image of those wriggling baby alligators dressed in buckskin was often more than we girls could handle and we often began squealing “e-u-w-w-w-w!” as grammy would tell us about how very cold those gators felt with their constantly flicking tails and strong legs!
Today when we talk about those stories we still laugh and but often wonder too. We think about what it might have been like for us to walk among the tents and trucks. What would it have been like if we’d been the girls growing up so long ago in grandma's home, the Fowler Brothers Circus.