Neighborhood: Whitestone

Rabbit Clock by Chuck Yeager

In Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, 19-year-old Alice – played by Mia Wasikowska – returns to Wonderland, 10 years after her last visit there, to rescue it from the Red Queen. At 26, two decades since my last trip to the rabbit hole, I can only say I envy her.

I was six years old in 1990 when my dad brought a white rabbit home for Easter. Unlike bunnies in other Italian-Catholic abodes in Whitestone, Queens, ours was not for eating. Snowball was for snuggling, brushing, feeding, and loving. Whenever my parents were rocking my infant brother, Ralph, to an afternoon sleep, I was outside cradling the pet. He closed his red-button eyes and thumped furry feet against my forearm. My bare toes clutched the grass as we swayed side-to-side, mother and bunny, carving temporary spaces in the air with our small bodies.

To give Snowball freedom to run, Dad put him on a dog’s leash and attached it to a red stake in the ground which, when removed, left a hole.

“You know who lives down there? Alice in Wonderland,” he said, as if “in” was part of her name.
I fell to my knees and peeked into the hole, hoping to see her. Instead, I spotted a worm. My father said if I wrote her a letter, he’d put it in the ground. I scurried inside to scribble:

Dear Alice, I’m so happy you live here. I have a white rabbit too. Write back. Love, Nicole.

Dad worked nights as an electrician for New York City, coming home when the neighborhood was stepping into slippers and turning on the coffee. He pulled his Buick into our driveway the next day when I awoke for kindergarten, and I ran outside with Christmas anticipation to greet him and to see if Alice responded. We sprinted toward the grass and our eyes fell upon a sheet of paper jutting from the ground.

I sang the words aloud:

Dear Nicole, Thanks for the letter! What’s your rabbit’s name? Let’s be pen pals. I love you. Love, Alice.

My father and I beamed, co-masters of a tiny universe we’d founded accidentally. We agreed I should write letters regularly, with one condition: “Just don’t tell anyone about this,” Dad said, “or she’ll disappear.”

I nodded, happy to accept this responsibility. This was our secret. It was why we winked at each other across the dinner table that evening when Mom was watching the baby.

The letters continued. In late September, the grass turned brown, and I skipped on crunchy leaves toward the hole to keep corresponding with my new best friend. One Sunday afternoon, I was depositing a note when my Aunt Joan swung her car into the driveway. She asked what I was doing.

“Alice in Wonderland lives down there,” I said. “We’re friends.”

“Oh, how nice,” Aunt Joan said. She smiled and bent down to hug me the way I’d now hug a child who said something cute. I knew right away she didn’t believe me.

I can still feel the way my stomach tensed up as I told her about Alice, knowing it was against the rules. I tried to ease my fears, insisting my pen pal wouldn’t mind because Aunt Joan was trustworthy. It didn’t matter. Alice never wrote to me again.

It was poor timing, too. My father had just gotten sick. His body and eyes turned yellow and he spent the next six weeks hallucinating between his bedroom and Elmhurst General Hospital. Mom was always changing a bandage on his leg, which I once saw covered a very bloody sore that took up most of his calf. We had special garbage bags for those bandages, special gloves Mom wore to apply and remove them. Sometimes an ambulance would come, and my parents would spend a few days in the hospital together. But they always came back, and I’d show my dad the gifts I got from the relatives who watched me while he was away – a doll’s blow dryer, a VHS of My Little Pony.

When he was home, he didn’t act the same around me, like the day I tried to bring his medicine to his room. I stood by his bedside with a metal spoon and a bottle of medicated liquid. “Get Mommy to do it,” he said. So I called for her, but he kept shouting: “Get Mommy to do it!” He continued to yell it, even when Mom got up to the room, and even when she kept saying, “It’s me, Ralph.” When he wouldn’t stop screaming, my mom said I should leave. She said that he was confused because we were both wearing black sweaters. I did leave, but it took a moment to get my legs to move. I wanted him to stop joking around, to scoop me up and prop me next to him in bed like he used to.

He died that fall, in early November. I learned soon after that he had hepatitis. I didn’t know what it meant and wondered if it was my fault.

I gave Alice several opportunities to write to me again. In letters I apologized for my slip. I told her that my dad died and I missed them both. I spent the rest of autumn crouched in the yard, whispering pleas to the dirt, like an animated garden gnome. When I finally realized it was over, I blinked tears into the empty hole, guilty for driving her away, lonelier than ever.

Winter’s snow and hard dirt closed Wonderland. Our white rabbit died the following summer. Alone with two babies, Mom accidentally let Snowball fall asleep in the sun. My father and he were put in the ground: Dad in St. Mary’s Cemetery, the pet in a shoebox in the backyard beneath the bushes.

I made the connection between the cessation of Alice’s letters and my father’s death when I was nine-years-old, the same day I found out that Santa Claus, too, was a fib told for my entertainment. At first, I resented my parents for forcing fantasy on me and vowed to never lie to my own children.

It has been 20 years since my dad first introduced me to Wonderland, and along with my childlike gullibility, most of my memories of him have disappeared. I no longer remember what it felt like to have a father, and only recall him in snapshots: the day we rode horses in the Poconos, the afternoon he taught me Beatles lyrics in the basement. But I’ll always remember the months we spent on the grass, absorbed in imagination. And I think of him whenever I pass the bronze Alice in Wonderland statues in Central Park, my new backyard since moving to Manhattan. I like to see her there, frozen in time and always at play, like my final lasting memories of my dad. As Alice makes her cinematic return to the rabbit hole so many years later, I hope for her sake and mine that this time Wonderland can be saved.

Nicole Ferraro’s memoir-in-progress is about losing her father at a young age. Her writing has appeared in Our Town and New York Press.

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§ 2 Responses to “Wonderland”

  • Jon Abrams says:

    Beautiful story – perhaps Tim Burton can be persuaded to visit the hole in Queens and conjure something up

  • Doug Salvesen says:

    Lot packed in to this story. Rabbits can die if they fall asleep in the sun — who knew?

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