I never played with my children. I took them to museums, plays, puppet shows, movies, and bowling and I read to them, but I never just sat down and played with them. My energy level fell to zero handling the everyday tasks of raising four kids after a long day in the office. I just couldn’t motivate myself to make forts with them out of Legos.
As they got older I was an enthusiastic spectator at their wrestling matches, baseball and football games, and swimming meets. I clapped so vigorously at their school performances that the palms of my hands stayed pink for days. But that was the thing — I was always an observer, not a participant in their playing.
I guess the truth was that even when I was a child I never really just played. I was always going somewhere or doing something with a purpose. I made potholders so that my family members and neighbors would ante up a few pennies for one of my creations. My friend and I produced and acted in little vignettes in my garage in the hope of receiving praise from an audience. I guess that was why when my son asked me to watch my granddaughter overnight I was extremely nervous at how we would spend the time together.
After six days riding the waves, the beach had lost its allure. I feverishly racked my mind for things that a 7-year-old would enjoy. We started the day by playing miniature golf, followed by a visit to a toy store, and then lunch in a Chinese restaurant. I was tense as I realized it was only 12:30 in the afternoon. Half a day hadn’t even passed.
Luckily two children’s movies were playing back to back in the theater in town. Comfortable that more than four hours could be taken care of, we nestled into our seats to watch talking animals and wizards. We gorged on junk food and emerged from the theater in time to wolf down some slices of pizza before stopping at the supermarket to buy a last sugar rush. Finally, we headed for the video store to finish our day with one more mind-numbing movie.
After trying several times to start the DVD player, the realization hit me that I wasn’t behaving like the grandmother idealized in storybooks. I always said I would teach my grandchildren the proper foods to eat and entertain them with scintillating interactions. The fact was that I was selfish and bored with the idea of building sand castles and drawing pictures. I had my first child at 19 and still had one at home. I had been a school principal and had spent my entire life with children. Is it possible to be burned out on all things relating to children? I was feeling guilty and decided to do something about it.
It was still too early to sleep, so I virtuously asked my granddaughter if she wanted to do a puzzle or read together. Unfortunately, I had picked the two things that she least liked to do. I resisted the temptation to spend the evening interrogating her about her mom and dad. Memories flooded into my mind of my mom baby-sitting for my children and then chastising me about the “bad” things she had discovered about me from my kids.
Suddenly, an idea popped into my head. We could talk. She could tell me about all the things she loved, and maybe there were some things in my life that she might find interesting to hear about. She had gone clamming with her dad the day before and was less than enchanted with the experience. At the end of the week she would go fishing with him on her first party boat.
It occurred to me that both of these events had been significant milestones in my own children’s lives. To a 7-year-old the word “tradition” is fairly meaningless. I held her close as I told her how her daddy’s grandfather and later his father had taken him on a fishing boat many years ago. Someday she would have a child and someone special would take him or her on a fishing boat or clamming. She will tell her child about the first time that she went with her dad, and a family tradition will continue.
As she listened to me she became very quiet and snuggled even closer to me. We kept telling each other stories until I looked at the clock and realized that it was way past her bedtime and I hadn’t actually played with my granddaughter once. As I was tucking her into bed she looked at me and said, “Nana, I had so much fun with you today.”
Maybe my idea of playing was too limited in scope. If it simply means having fun, then I guess that I’ve been playing for most of my life but I just didn’t know it.
Sandy Camillo, a previous contributor of “Guestwords,” spends summers at her house in East Hampton.