My two best friends growing up were brothers who lived three houses away from me. Tim was in my grade and Joe was two years older.
The school I attended let us out earlier than Tim and Joe’s, so I would beat them home and then wait until I saw their minivan drive down the block. I’d allow them the smallest amount of time to get inside and then run to our house phone and call. I’m sure their mom would have appreciated a minute or two to get settled before their phone started ringing, but as a kid I never considered that. Most of my life I only had three phone numbers memorized; my own, Tim and Joe’s, and 911. I think I’ll forget my own name before I forget their old telephone number.
Generally their mom or dad answered and I would ask, “Can Tim and Joe play today?” Usually the answer was yes. Occasionally they had something they needed to do first and on the worst of days couldn’t play at all. Those days were blessedly rare.
After getting permission from our parents to play–we didn’t call it “hanging out” until we were much older–we’d figure out where we were going to meet (their house or mine) and what we were going to do. If I was going over to their house I’d run across my yard, onto the sidewalk, past the houses in between ours, and then up their porch steps to ring the doorbell. When my mom finally called to have me come home for supper, I’d run the whole route in reverse. Throughout the years I must have run between our houses thousands of times. Our neighbors in between might have thought it was a little weird or funny, but for some reason it was just a habit to run.
The variety of activities we made up and played together is as long and unpredictable as the strands of Rapunzel’s hair in a hurricane. At different times we were mad scientists, super heroes, world class athletes, construction workers, movie producers, soldiers, rocket car drivers, cosmonauts, city planners, and more. Our imagination turned camping in the backyard into a base camp clinging to the cliffs of Mount Everest, water and food coloring became hazardous chemicals or magical potions, a four-foot-by-four-foot wooden sandbox was the vast, trackless expanse of the Sahara, and our popup pool swelled with the waves of the Atlantic. We defended castles, built skyscrapers, and saved the galaxy.
From kindergarten on, through every season of the year, we played together day after day. We shared meals and trips together, got in trouble together (though not too much), and learned together. As kids we didn’t know it, but through countless hours of playing we were building relationships that would last long after we’d moved out of our parents’ homes. We didn’t think past what we were doing that day or week, but our time together had ramifications far beyond playing whiffle ball or making our own board games. We never anticipated helping each other through the insecurities of junior high, navigating the social waters of high school, or coping with the loss of loved ones, but we did. We had no idea that in the future we’d see each other go off to college, start careers, get married, have children, or own a home, but we have. We didn’t set out for all three of us to become brothers, but we are.
We just wanted to play.
Our parents couldn’t have known when they chose where to live that, just a few doors down, there would be a family whose story would become so intertwined with their own–that when the neighbor boy(s) started playing together it was the beginning of an extra seat or two around the dinner table, more ears listening to their words, and eyes watching their examples. That they would essentially have extra children to raise, but also extra help. That neither family would ever move meant there was never a geographical barrier to continued daily friendship.
I don’t know what my life would have been like if we hadn’t lived three houses away from Tim and Joe or if our parents hadn’t let us play together as much as we did. I’m not sure how different I would be if I didn’t always have them as friends. We each had other friends from school or church or different athletic teams, but those friendships came and went through the years as we went through the different transitions of life. In our circle of friends, the constant from kindergarten through middle school to high school was the three of us. Knowing you always have a friend or two even as things around you change is powerful. We’ve shaped each other more than we know.
We don’t get to “play” together often anymore. Life is busy, we have more responsibilities, and live in different places. But when we see each other and get to talk we pick up where we left off. Our conversations don’t have any of the posturing or mask wearing of many other adult conversations. There’s no need to put on a face and try to be someone we’re not–we’ve seen each other with bedhead. I don’t need to try to impress someone when I’ve peed my pants at his house and he’s clogged the toilet at mine.
It’s true that the conversation has changed from how to beat the next level of our favorite game to where to get the best deal on internet service, but that spark is still there. As kids our money used to purchase starships and dinosaurs, now it pays the electric bill. But when we come across an item or a reference that harkens back to those days of play, we’ll take a picture or copy a link and send it to each other and for a moment, the three of us will be kids again, playing in the yard as the lightning bugs glow or riding our bikes through the early morning mist.
There are many benefits derived from play, but I think the greatest is the friends you make, especially if they happen to be only three houses away.