Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Pretenders

Carys just ran through the kitchen flapping her arms and holding a packet of my vitamins in her mouth.  "Look Mommy! I'm Harry Potter's owl!" she announced excitedly through clenched teeth, barely slowing down. 

"Goodbye, beautiful Hedwig!" I called, as she swooped out of the room to find her sisters.

A few days ago, the girls spent hours cutting up dozens and dozens of squares of paper and coloring each one of them. I asked Bronte what they were up to.

"We're playing Extreme Couponing." 

"What is that?" I asked. 

"It's sort of like hoarding.  Only organized." Two of them grab old grocery bags and pretend to shop, forking over their imaginary goods and handmade coupons to the third sister, who has been dubbed the "cash register girl."

Despite their obvious preference for pretending or creating their own games, over the years we have accumulated what seems like the inventory of an entire Toys R' Us in our basement--toys I picked out, not them. Aside from the occasional Barbie or stuffed animal, they never ask for toys for Christmas or birthdays, usually focusing their wish-lists on art supplies and clothes. But I keep buying toys. After a day or two of excitement over something shiny and new, the new toy disappears into the basement purgatory, replaced by some handmade or invisible plaything.

When we go through the rare purging kick, I am the one waxing nostalgic over the trumpet playing Cookie Monster and the rocking-horse style Eeyore that they have all long since outgrown.  I am the one begging them to reconsider their choices:  

"But how could you want to get rid of this stuffed purple bulldog? Daddy won that for you at Kings Dominion!" I cry, as if this had been some amazing, death-defying quest on his part.

"It's itchy and flat," they respond, without feeling. I attribute their lack of sentimentality to their father, a point that is proven as they happily chuck the unloved beast in Anthony's direction where he waits, holding an open trash bag at the ready, like some malevolent inverse Santa, only too happy to take the toys away. 

Farewell, purple bulldog.

As much as I love to observe my children's creativity at work, I am acutely aware of my own failings in imagination. I am not the mom who sits on the floor and plays with my children. Sure, when they bring me a bowl of paper scraps asking me to try their soup or an empty plate with the invisible winner of their own Cupcake Wars, I obligingly take a pretend nibble followed by an enthusiastic (I hope) "Mmm, mmm, good!" before I return to whatever I was doing. 

I don't feel good about this and yet, I am so consumed with my day to day "stuff" that I have continued to brush them off to the point where no one asks me to play with them anymore. 

I certainly remember pretending with my siblings, especially my sister Nicki. We shared a room most of our childhood. One game in particular that I remember well:  We would lie in our beds at night and pretend that we were in our own little apartments.  We would describe the apartments in detail (mine had French doors with gauzy curtains over them and overstuffed furniture in bright floral prints).  We were also both married, and our imaginary husbands (who had neither names nor faces) worked together at some undefined job. Each night the game would start as one of us housewives would sigh, "I wonder when the boys will be home?" 

As so the conversation about our day would begin: What we did with our children that day, what we were going to make our husbands for dinner, et cetera. It was fun pretending that when we grew up, we would be as close as we were then, living next door to each other, raising our kids, while our husbands worked together.

Of course, there is a good reason why this particular game of pretend stands out so vividly in my mind. When we grew up, we did move within walking distance of each other. We had three daughters apiece, with each "pair" of girls only weeks or months apart. And we all--me, my sister and both of our husbands--worked together at the same company. Eventually, after we each had our third child, we both left our jobs to stay home with our children. That first day that we were both home and our husbands were at work, my sister called me and said with a sigh, "I wonder when the boys will be home."

I don't remember when I stopped pretending or when my sister's and my nighttime conversations gave way from imaginary futures to immediate youthful girl-drama. I do remember I received my last toy, Golden Dream Barbie, in the 7th grade, so I'm guessing it was 8th or 9th grade that I put what I saw as "childish things" aside.

For now, my girls' imaginations are going strong and I encourage it as much as possible, praising them for being so inventive.  When we took them to see the movie Soul Surfer, about Bethany Hamilton, a young teen girl who lost her arm to a shark attack while surfing, the girls were inspired by Bethany's determination to do things on her own despite her injury. They spent the rest of the day and night with one arm pulled into their t-shirts, trying their best to go through their usual routine--eating, playing, dressing, fixing hair, and like Bethany, making sandwiches--using only one arm. They all three fell asleep that way and later, Anthony and I marveled at their staying power as we wrestled each warm little arm back through its sleeve as we put them to bed.

Chloe, Carys, and Bronte playing Soul Surfer.

Their imagination delights me. But I wonder how long this will last. Does pretending have to end? If I encourage them enough, will they hold on to this creativity? Can I channel it for them, harness it somehow before it slips away as they race towards the future? Maybe they will be writers or painters or actors when they grow up. 

I came across this quote by George Bernard Shaw a few weeks ago:

"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."

Maybe if I can keep the girls pretending, I can slow down time. 

Maybe if I start pretending, I can go back in time.

In any case, it is clearly time for me to transform. Not into a better mother (though that would be nice) or a fitter 41 year old or an amazing teacher or any of the other ideals I spend so much time and energy trying to achieve.

No, I think I will transform into an owl and fly downstairs to deliver some coupons to my girls.

I love this cartoon by our friend Gideon Mosemak, a student in our youth group and someone my girls adore.


Erin said...

I remember sitting Megan down shortly after my 10th birthday and trying to explain to her that I was too old to pretend anymore. I told her she would understand one day, too. That lasted about 30 minutes before I was bored and wanted to play again. Even though you may want to make it last longer or fear it's ending, just merely noticing it and appreciating it is more than some people are willing or able to do.

Anonymous said...

Just remember that no matter how old they get, as well as you, they will never forget the memories of their youth and that in and of itself will help keep their imaginations close, so as long as you remember what it was like to be a child and try to keep you memories closer than you will be the greatest imaginer ever.