When my sister Grace and I were about 4 and 2 respectively, my mother was working and couldn’t be home as much as she would have liked, so she and my dad hired an au pair to take care of us. Ozlem was a 19-year-old from Turkey and the best au pair we could have asked for. She lived with us for three years and made up the best games. She once built a shoe store in our living room, using all of our shoes in the house and the three of us would take turns being the salesman and the customers. She also introduced us to the Macarena and Spanish olives, which is off topic but still an important impact of her presence. Anyways, I like to think that it was because of her that we learned that the best toys aren’t toys at all. The best toy ever was imagination.
In addition to developing excellent imaginations, Grace and I honed our architectural and acting skills brilliantly as young girls. We would make up games that would involve first building a massive structure and then living in that structure. We would make multi-room, multi-level houses by suspending blankets from couches and tables and water pipes and ceiling beams with yarn or weighted objects (think big books and 10lb free weights). Then we pretend that we were both mothers who had to work because our husbands died at war/car accident/illness or homemakers who had to do the shopping and care for the children while our husbands were permanently at work (note: we would never be divorced. We had high hopes for our marriages even as young children). Our parts were complete with costume (our mom’s old clothes) and audience (mom would watch us while she folded laundry).
When we weren’t playing these particular parts, we would build grocery stores filled with empty rice boxes and egg cartons and salt canisters and anything else mom would give us. We once built a garden, using wooden blocks as crops. Before our basement was finished, we would draw highway lanes on the ground with chalk and ride around on our scooters and bikes during the winter months. During the summer months, our games would have similar themes but simply be moved outdoors. We would build structures from sticks instead of blankets and make food out of mud and leaves instead of blocks. When Grace was in the 4th grade, she learned about the Lenape tribe (the Native American sect indigenous to northeast New Jersey) and decided to make a long house by weaving sticks together for the frame and roofing it with bark. Let me add that this was a fantastic long house, big enough for a 9 year old, a 7 year old and our 1-year-old baby sister to fit inside of.
In the long run, our joint childhood is something we look back at with pride. We didn’t have a Nintendo 64 or a trampoline. We didn’t have those cool battery-powered cars that actually drove around (although our two little sisters did, SO not fair). Yet our childhood was full of adventure and creativity, with very few actual casualties (we didn’t know there were eggs in that nest!). As I look at modern kids who sit indoors during the summer, I cannot help but think that although we didn’t have ipods or cell phones, we were the lucky ones. We had the better childhood.