When I was a child, I had an imaginary friend named Johnson Johnson. My mother said that I probably derived the name from Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder (since renamed to just Johnson’s baby powder). If you haven’t had an imaginary friend, you may not understand how real he or she can be. I have memories from my childhood that include Johnson Johnson as if he were an actual member of my family. I remember going to Roger William’s Zoo when I was four or five years old and playing with Johnson Johnson in the Oriental Gardens. I remember swimming with Johnson Johnson in the pool in the backyard, sleeping in a chair beside my bed and playing in the barn together.
In my mind, Johnson Johnson was as real as my brother or sister.
I don’t know when Johnson Johnson left me, but I know it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, because years later, when I was a teenager, I was talking to my mom about the past and I mentioned Johnson Johnson.
“You know he was your imaginary friend, right?” she asked.
During the same time that Johnson Johnson had come to live with me, our family would, from time to time, take in children in need of a temporary homes, including one little girl who I remember well named Jessica. These were kids who would live with us for a few days or weeks and then return home. Temporary foster care, I think you would call it.
I thought Johnson Johnson was just another one of those kids, and for almost a decade, this assumption remained firmly in place in my mind, cementing itself amongst the rest of my memories.
That's why I was so surprised when my mother said. “Johnson Johnson wasn’t real. He was your imaginary friend.”
“No," I said. "He was like those other kids who stayed with us. Like Jessica.”
“No,” my mom said. “Jessica was real. Johnson Johnson was not.”
“But what about the Oriental Gardens? The pool? The barn? He used to eat breakfast with me when I woke up before everyone else.”
“Not real, Matt,” my mom said.
Discovering that Johnson Johnson wasn't real rocked my world like you can’t imagine. It was like the walls of reality had come tumbling down and I could no longer trust my mind.
A thousand memories suddenly became suspect. Untrustworthy. Negotiable.
I found myself scanning my mind, attempting to erase a person who I once thought was real. It was impossible. Johnson Johnson had become insinuated into so many memories that to erase him completely meant erasing vast portions of the memory entirely. There are still times to this day when a memory from my childhood leaps to mind and I realize that Johnson Johnson is still in it, appearing alive and real and well, and I need to remind myself that he was not there.
It’s a little unnerving, as you might imagine.
And it’s the inspiration for the book that I am currently working on.