Cowan Palace: Stories, Magic, and a Lesson in Life Savers

Ashley Cowan shares her love of bedtime stories and a family favorite tale.

Once upon a time there lived a girl who loved stories. Spoiler alert: it was me.

From a very early age, I fell in love with fairy tales, bedtime books, and the magical words that lent themselves to my imagination. Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are said to be in a stage of child development that can be the most suggestible making them incredibly receptive to their environment. Which makes bedtime stories told during that time even more influential; those tales will root themselves in their subconscious and continue to play. And as a child fortunate to have been introduced to many stories, I can attest to their legacies kept alive in my mind.

Luckily, I grew up in a household with natural storytellers. My mother is an educator and my father worked for the state of Connecticut as a disability claimer. Both had the opportunity to observe a variety of people on a daily basis. But the bedtime stories I treasured most were the ones about travels they had experienced. My mom was born in Portugal and my dad has been to more places than any group of people I’ve ever met combined. My favorite fascination was hearing about the years he spent living in rural African villages. I would beg my father almost every evening to tell me one of those stories (sorry Mom, you had some good ones too but how can you compete with that?).

And so I’d love to share a Cowan classic. It’s a true tale told much better by my father who lived it but here goes… My father, John, traveled through Africa on a path few may have been able to replicate. With only a backpack as a companion at times, he lived each day without a defined route. He was young, blond, and adventurous. Often, because he looked so different than some of the people he encountered, a variety of details about his background would be assumed. He once stayed at a village where the people called him “doctor” because he had a medical bag on him with very basic items (toothbrush, Band-Aids, etc.) and when they had asked him to ease their aches and pains he had administered painkillers from a small bottle. My father came upon the leader of the group who had seemed wary of him. And in a bit of a panic and after not finding much left to offer him, he handed the man the only thing he had left. One of the old Life Saver candies from the bottom of the bag. The man accepted it by immediately consuming the round colorful piece. The sweet treat proved to be a real item of interest as the man proceeded to ask my father for another with a bright smile. The Life Saver lived up to its name. He then declared that my dad was made of magic and to further thank him he gave him a simple gold bracelet. My father was reluctant to take such a gift but they all insisted and branded him with a piece of their home. That bracelet has never come off my dad’s wrist. Not after all the near death experiences he’d tackle later in his travels, or his wedding day, or even through any future medical procedures. It’s a representation of his countless adventures and the relationships that can form between strangers and he’s promised to remember that forever.

My father joins this effort to continue sharing experiences and stories; a timeless practice that has been recounted throughout human history. Within these tales are lessons of survival and morality. Bedtime stories can be an insight into a wide variety of human characteristics and behaviors. It appears that even a thousand years ago, we were still creatures capable of both gruesome violence and beautiful enduring faith that good can win out over evil. Be it for entertainment, education, religious purposes, we continue to invent the heroes, villains, and magic to reflect the pieces of ourselves we want to be remembered.

I once heard that truly wondrous stories happen to those who tell them and within each passed tale is a piece of magic just waiting to introduce itself to a new listener. So I hope you’ll join us for Pajanuary on Monday, January 21 as we revisit the land of wonder and imagination where so many of our beloved bedtime stories live. Get those pajamas pressed and look forward to spending the night between once upon a time and happily ever after.

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at