Late on a hot August afternoon at Knott’s Berry Farm, Jorja grinned at her kids perched on the log rail fence with long legs dangling, the Wilderness Dance Hall behind them. The dampness of their clothing wasn’t visible but she’d heard their shoes squishing as they walked. Hopefully they’d dry out before time to attend the show at the Dance Hall.
Bigfoot Rapids had been perfect for relieving their overheated bodies. They’d screamed with shock and laughter as the ride took them careening from side to side in the sluice, never knowing which way the boat would spin and who would be the one getting drenched by waterfalls.
It isn’t just the heat of the summer season we’re escaping, Jorja mused.
Although they lived in southern California, its amusement parks did not have a slot in their budget. But this year her kids had entered a story-writing contest and twelve-year old Justin’s story was one of the winners. The prize: free entry for the whole family of six to Knott’s Berry Farm, topped off by The Imagination Machine, a theatrical group, acting out all the winning stories on the Wilderness Dance Hall stage.
Jorja had wished she could share this honor with her parents. Aside from the fact that they lived at a distance there was the matter of the estrangement. Jorja was limiting contact with them for a season, prayerfully hoping they would seek professional help. She’d decided she would not subject her children to the abusive environment she’d grown up in. Still she felt bereft at their absence.
Then she’d thought of her aunt who lived close by.
Earlier in the spring an accident had taken the life of Jorja’s uncle. She knew her aunt was sorrowing deeply and wondered if she’d be up for a day of frivolity. But maybe she’d be willing to come for the show at least. Jorja debated with herself whether it was appropriate even to ask. Would Aunt Arleta feel guilty about going out for recreation? She’d finally picked up the phone, choosing to let Aunt Arleta decide for herself.
To her delight, Aunt Arleta eagerly accepted the invitation, agreeing to spend the entire day at Knott’s Berry Farm with them. The Old West settings prompted the older woman to share story after story of pioneers her grandparents had known. She eagerly climbed onto every roller coaster ride Jorja suggested. And she insisted on treating the family to one of Mrs. Knott’s famous fried chicken dinners with hot apple pie for dessert.
Jorja watched out for her aunt all day, saw her laugh and scream along with everyone else. Facial expressions, as evidenced by a hidden camera on the Log Ride, emphatically clued Jorja in to the rightness of inviting her. With her hair swept back by the force of their descent, Aunt Arleta’s chin was raised high, her eyes closed as though in prayer, and she was smiling from ear to ear.
At the Dance Hall, The Imagination Machine performers depicted Justin’s fictional barkeeper mixing up the new drink he’d invented and drinking it. Their antics successfully portrayed him floating into the sky where he exploded. Aunt Arleta applauded wildly.
“That was amazing,” Aunt Arleta exclaimed.
“Yes,” Jorja chuckled. “I wondered how they were going to show that detail without special effects of some kind.”
They both patted Justin’s back while he grinned modestly.
After the show while Justin and his siblings had their pictures taken with the actors, Jorja slipped her arm through her aunt’s.
“Auntie ‘Leta, thanks so much for being with us today. You know how much I wished it possible for my folks to have been here. Having you as surrogate eased the sadness of this season for me considerably,” Jorja confided.
“I’m thrilled you invited me!” her aunt replied. “It was time. I needed this day. I miss your uncle so much and I know the grieving process is not over. I’m still struggling to accept what happened. But a break in this season of grief came at the right time. It was good to enjoy myself and not feel guilty about it. To be included with your family and focus on Justin’s accomplishment—to just plain have fun! Thank you so much for thinking of me and wanting me to be with you all.”
Jorja gave her a hug. “I think something even more amazing than theatrical technique for exploding barkeepers is when two seasons overlap!”
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