That was a standard greeting between my neighbor, Julie and me. If it were summer in the Midwestern suburb where we grew up, some time during the 1970s, the odds were good that we’d be scampering about in no time. Funny–there was probably rarely a time that either of us didn’t want to play.
“My house or your house?” came next.
Julie’s grandparents, Oma and Opa, lived on the second floor of Julie’s house, a burgundy, two-story, Tudor-esque cottage surrounded by gardens and sunflowers and shaded fieldstone patios where Opa reclined in a lawn chair to smoke his pipe. There were gerbils in a little plastic cage atop the fridge (I’ll bet they were warm up there) and Spaghetti-Os in the pantry.
My parents were into being Italian, which wasn’t really a thing you bragged about back then, and they wouldn’t have been caught dead with canned pasta in the house. I coveted both the gerbils and the canned goods.
My house had climbable apple trees in the back yard and an air conditioned basement with a finished area we called “the play room,” and a little dog named Bella who would chase sticks all day long if you wanted her to.
As with most things in the Midwest, our playing decisions were largely dependent upon the weather. Nice days meant badminton on Julie’s gravel driveway, or strapping a lemon twist around our ankles to see who could skip longer without stopping. Hot, humid days sent us to my basement where we painted with watercolors or goofed around with my mom’s typewriter. We also had an enviable dress-up collection because my mom loved garage sales and, man, we had some groovy stuff.
We rotated among the same dozen or so activities nearly every day, with truth-or-dare and bike rides mixed in when we felt adventurous. If we were especially lucky, we earned a little money for Baskin Robbins.
That was about 40 years ago, and playing looks different now. On warm, sunny days, it’s a hike, a boat ride, or puttering in the garden. On rainy afternoons or cool evenings, a game of cribbage or pencil sketches hold my attention. There are trips to Rome mixed in when I’m feeling adventurous.
I rarely think of those gangly barefoot days anymore. They seemed so uneventful—so average. I struggle to put my finger on any one activity that contributed to the person I am today, but I suspect building forts and catching bugs in an abandoned lot (we called it “the field”) and daring each other to new climbing heights prepared us for the stuff we do now.
Maybe it isn’t the stuff we did, but the fact that we did it.
Our parents didn’t shuttle us from dance lessons to swim practice, hitting the drive-thru on the way. (Actually, there were no drive-thrus back then, and even if there were fast-food nearby, it would have been a treat rather than the norm.)
The point is, our parents had errands to run, gardens to tend, family to take care of, and work to do. While our dads were at their jobs, Julie’s mom worked in the library at the public high school. My mom sewed my and my sister’s clothing until we were in sixth grade. Our parents had their own stuff to do and weren’t about to drop it to organize playtime for their kids. If we wanted to play, we had to make it happen on our own. The creating, the discoveries, the tumbles and the struggles were ours; pride and joy over our accomplishments and creations were ours; and anguish over bee stings and skinned knees were ours, too.
I haven’t seen Julie in years, but I wonder if her kids collect bugs, ride bikes, and chase each other around for no apparent reason. I wonder if they dare each other to eat weird stuff or play dress-up.