4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I’ve been recreating my childhood one board game at a time. Or actually, not my whole entire childhood. Were I to try to recreate my whole entire childhood I’d need frozen TV dinners, 24-hour-a-day television, SPF 6 Coppertone sunscreen applied once a day (but only at the beach), canned vegetables, iceberg lettuce, and Wonder Bread. Also benign neglect, but that goes without saying.
And it was a fine enough childhood. Nothing will make you more likely to become an obsessive reader than watching every single Brady Bunch, Partridge Family and Dating Game rerun that exists. That’s a fact. I read The Outsiders three times in one weekend to escape the television in my house. Also because of Ponyboy. (Stay gold.)
But now my husband and I have been known to fake-enthusiastically ask, in the middle of a sushi dinner for six, “Hey, do you remember when you were five and your parents took you to eat sushi?” And then the other one of us will add, “And Udon noodles, and shrimp shumai!”
“Right, good times!”
Because it never happened. We apply this to all sorts of things:
“Do you remember when your parents brought you to the organic farm to pick your own blueberries for $6.99 a pint?”
“Do you remember when your parents bought you your first pair of Nikes… for kindergarten?”
“Do you remember how your parents bought you ice cream cones and then sat and watched the sunset with you?” (That one we said just last night.)
“Do you remember how your parents taught you how to sew/play piano/kayak?”
Because the answer is of course, no. No, no, no. I don’t remember. Because it never happened. Frozen meals, remember?
But each summer when I was a kid for one week my family would head to Cape Cod, to a little gray-shingled cottage for six with no phone or television (or my severely retarded brother.) We would ride bikes, steal firewood to build fires in the fireplace (out of season plus un-winterized), bunk up together and eat loads of canned clam chowder (old habits die hard.)
We’d also play board games.
And in our regular, everyday mayhem we called life we were not a game-playing family. We were a family with illness and disability. We were a family who worked hard. At school, at work, at surviving. At watching television, apparently.
But for our one week of vacation in our little cottage we would play games. We played Monopoly (which I still sort of hate), Probe (hangman with cards), Yahtzee (do you live under a rock? It’s Yahtzee!), Boggle, Life, Battleship, King Oil and every card game known to man.
And over the last few years I’ve inadvertently begun collecting these games for our kids. Not just any version, mind you, but the oldest, mildewed, old-school version anyone is willing to dig up from their basement and stick a 25 cent sticker on. I’ve found everything but King Oil, actually. Some date from the 60’s. The Probe game I found last week was from 1974. I think it may be the exact edition we’d cart to Cape Cod every year with us.
At first it seemed unintentional, coincidental, this collecting of familiar, old, family games. Who doesn’t want to occupy their kids with hours of Yahtzee, especially when they themselves played it once upon a time? I mean, I already know the rules. These game pieces are etched into my memory.
Over the past few weeks, and most especially with the acquisition of the fairly obscure game of Probe, I think I’m trying to do more than simply occupy my kids with good, clean, family game night. With each new, musty game I’m reaching back to that girl who loved her week in Cape Cod, the week less-fettered with stress and illness and the pressures of school friends.
I’m telling her that a tow-headed kid filled with curiosity and healthy food can sit face-to-face with his or her mom and play a really fun game, not just one day, but any day. I’m reaching back to little Jennie and saying, “Here, meet these kids. They’re super fun and healthy and for the most part, comfortable in their skin. And you are a part of their lives now. This is your life now.”
We can’t take back our childhood. And except to ease the pain of my siblings and parents, for the most part, I wouldn’t change mine. Just tonight my husband looked at me and said about one of our sons, “His whole shtick would work so much better if he were poor and living in the slums of London. He’d grow up to be David Bowie!”
Yes, we even wonder sometimes if we’re scrubbing the resilience and moxie out of our kids with these days of parental attention and healthy living. I nodded in agreement to my husband’s Bowie-observation but added, “All in good time.”
Because time has also taught me that a parent can’t protect their kids from hardships, no matter how caring and vigilant, no matter how much high-end sushi we give them.
It is days of wanting and needing and not receiving that probably gave me some of my greatest strength anyway. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without witnessing the struggles of those I loved, without loving them so much in my own visceral, musty, mildewed way.
No, giving my kids these (by all accounts) halcyon days of organic foods, SPF 50 (which probably causes cancer, by the way), unlimited beach time and yes, board games, won’t protect them from the really big stuff that will come their way. None of this will. In my own way I guess I’m just reaching back in time, into their childhoods as well as mine, and straightening a shelf a bit, holding them to my chest, taking a mental Polaroid, pulling the quintuple-your-first-guess card.
It’s just the smallest bit of very good which perhaps means the most.
(And because I’m really curious… what was your childhood board game go-to? I’ve gotta know if we’re missing something.)