The Make-Believe World of the Boys Next Door

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

A new family moved in next door over the winter. We didn’t have much opportunity to meet them for the first few months, it being winter and cold and all. We exchanged a wave here and there, but had little interaction until the weather started warming in recent weeks.

This new family has five little ones. All boys, I think. This is a good thing for Little Guy  who lives in the house on the other side of ours. In a neighborhood full of old farts, he’s finally got friends to play with. And I probably won’t seem so cool to him anymore, but I’ll happily relinquish my status as one of Little Guy’s few neighborhood friends (all of us being significantly older than he) in the interest of him hanging out with people his own age. Besides, unlike me, those five little boys probably have plenty of energy to keep up with Little Guy’s never-ending stream of jumping, running, dancing and somersaulting.

The neighborhood gossip-slash-retired guy across the street tells us the new family is a yours-mine-and-ours situation. Some of the kids are hers, some are his and one is theirs. The youngest one is a baby, but the other four are old enough to have been out playing in the back yard several times when I’ve come home from work lately. They appear to be very close in age, the oldest I would guess to be no more than seven or eight years old.

The previous owners left a play structure behind when they moved, but this was apparently not enough to keep all those little boys occupied. A couple of weeks ago, an additional, new structure went up, very close to our fence.

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I went out in the yard yesterday after work to play with Lucy and do a little necessary clean-up. While doing so, I noticed a plastic stick-looking thing by the fence that borders the new neighbors’ yard. Four little boys were climbing and sliding on the new play structure, shouting and screeching as little boys tend to do. All were armed with plastic Nerf guns and they all stopped to watch as I wandered over to pick up the black plastic stick.

He threw that over there,” one tattled to me, pointing at one of his brothers. He, the tattler appeared to be four or five years old.

“That’s okay,” I said. “Is it a part to one of your guns?”

He nodded and told me I could “just throw it back over.” The others stopped and quieted, watching us talk, probably curious to see if I was going to turn out to be the nice neighbor lady, or the scary, crabby neighbor lady. I think I established myself as a friendly old lady. Anyway, I’m planning ahead on being the one that gives each of them an extra handful of candy when Halloween rolls around again, so that should work in my favor.

“But you might not want to throw your things over here,” I warned them. “Lucy loves to chew on sticks, and I can’t promise she won’t chew on your toys, especially ones like this that look like sticks.”

They all agreed, and one noticed the shovel I held in my hand. He crinkled his nose and said, “You’re picking up poop with that shovel? That’s gross!

“I know,” I agreed. “I’d hate to step in it. That’s why I’m cleaning it up!”

“You should get a pooper-scooper,” one of them offered. I smiled and agreed I might.

Curiosity satisfied, the boys returned to their games of make believe. In spite of the guns in each of their grasps, I heard someone say, “Let’s play house.”

That made me smile. Those tough little gun-slingers had a soft side after all!

At the invitation to play house, one of the boys responded with fake-crying. “I want my mommy!” He wailed.

“She’s dead,” came the reply.

~~~~~~~~~~

I’m not sure where the game continued after that. I was pretty taken aback by the abrupt, unemotional announcement that make-believe Mommy was dead. Seems the world of pretend is a lot less innocent than it used to be.

I’m looking forward to summer and getting to know the new neighbors better, along with their little boys. I’m imagining sweetness and laughter, slip-and-slides and whiffle ball games. And hopefully, no shooting Nerf guns at my dog, and no more make-believe death in the make-believe family. The real world’s got enough of that already.

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Still Cool to Some

There’s been much anticipation the past few days of unseasonably warm temperatures here in Minnesota. Around the office, it was a frequent topic of conversation. “Got any plans for Saturday? Are you going to get outside and enjoy the warm weather?”

The news first reported predictions of fifty, and then they hinted at fifty-three. In February! In Minnesota! I heard that if we saw fifty-five degrees, we’d be breaking some weather record set years ago. When all was said and done, the day saw nearly sixty degrees!

I was puttering around the house on Saturday morning. Jack, having worked the night shift, was sleeping in our bedroom in the lower level. I was trying to keep things relatively quiet for him as I cleaned the kitchen and listened to some music playing on low volume.  It didn’t matter how hard I tried to keep things quiet inside, because Lucy was spending a lot of time barking; this whether she was inside the house or out in the yard. On such a warm day, people were out enjoying it. And that meant the walking path that runs behind our yard was busy with walkers and their dogs. Lucy just had to greet them all. She was in her glory, chasing up and down the yard along the fence, calling out her greetings to all who passed by.

Periodically, I’d poke my head out the door and shush her, and she’d look at me with momentary remorse before resuming her bark-fest once again. I thought it might help if I went outside with her. Besides, there was some clean-up I could do in the back yard. Being a dog owner, a winter’s worth of melting snow tends to reveal certain gifts.

Last weekend was warm too, although not nearly as beautiful as it was this weekend. I’d done a good deal of clean-up in the yard then. But there was still quite a bit of snow which was now quickly disappearing. I slipped on a jacket and the mud boots I bought at Fleet Farm a few years ago for just this purpose. Besides not wanting to step in anything unpleasant with good shoes, the grade of our yard means that when the snow melts, portions of it become very swampy. I wanted to keep my feet dry too.

Once outside, I quickly realized that the jacket was too much, and I hung it on the railing at the bottom of the deck stairs. Runners passed by in shorts and t-shirts. It was beautiful outside and the sun felt amazing! I proceeded to make my way around the yard with a shovel, a bucket, and a supply of plastic bags. It wasn’t long before Little Guy from next door appeared at the gate, holding his mom’s hand and pressing his forehead shyly into her leg. I greeted them and as I expected, learned that Little Guy wanted to come spend time at our place. I told him I had to finish the job I was doingbut if he wanted to hang around while I did that, he was welcome. His shy demeanor disappeared and he ran back to his driveway to get his battery-powered John Deere tractor.

Little Guy drove circles around the big White Pine. I told him to stick close to the tree where it was clear of any dog poop. He did a pretty good job of staying where he was supposed to. It didn’t take me long to finish the clean-up, (and I thought how lucky we are to have this warm-up in February. After really snowy winters, when it might be closer to April before tackling it, this can be quite a disgusting job!)

When I was done, Little Guy wanted to come inside and play Wii bowling, so we shed our boots at the back door. Lucy followed us inside. She seems to think Little Guy is some kind of giant plaything for her entertainment, and loves to chase him around as he runs circles through the kitchen.

Little Guy hung out at our house for quite a while. Jack woke up. The barking and sound of running feet in the upstairs was probably to blame, but he gets a kick out of Little Guy, so he didn’t seem to mind too much. Jack and Little Guy played Wii baseball for a while. Then Little Guy and I played Wii tennis. Soon he was asking me to play something else, but I was having trouble deciphering his four year-old words.

The light bulb finally went on. He was asking for Jenga blocks! When we’d babysat him in December, I went on a search for something we might play with him, but soon remembered that any preschool toys that might still be around are probably up in the rafters of the garage. Searching through the game cupboard back then, I’d caught sight of the Jenga game. I figured they might work as a substitute. Clearly, Little Guy remembered and wanted to play again. We built houses and towers for a while, all of which ended up in  a pile because apparently the fun of building with blocks is to knock them down.

Next we watched a cartoon called Masha and the Bear on Netflix. I’d never heard of it. My kids being in their twenties, I’m out of the loop of popular preschool television entertainment. Again, it took me some time to figure out what Little Guy was asking for before we were able to locate the show. (He finally took the Wii remote from me and scrolled through the kids’ menu until he found it himself.) Each episode of this cartoon is a series of three shorts, and they all begin with a lively song during which the characters dance on screen. Each and every time the intro song came on, Little Guy stood up from our game of blocks and danced along. His arms waved and flapped, his head flopped side to side while his feet jumped and his entire body bounced around the living room. Each time, he ended by throwing himself to the floor and giggling uncontrollably.

As we passed the time with blocks and Masha, Little Guy was constantly on the move. Whenever he’s here, he always wants to jump on the furniture, and as much as I want his time here to be fun, that’s where I draw the line. “Don’t do that,” I gently scolded as he stood up and began to jump on the loveseat.

“Why?” He asked, stopping reluctantly, although I’m sure he knows full well why.

“It’s a rule at our house,” I said. “Jumping on the cushions makes the furniture break. I’ll bet that’s a rule at your house too.”

A sly smile crept across his face and he slithered his way off the loveseat.

Periodically, Little Guy would come plop himself down in my lap and sit for a minute. Once when he put too much “oomph” behind an attempted somersault, he landed on his forehead. He fell into my lap looking for sympathy and I rubbed his head along his hairline where I imagined it hurt. I asked if he was okay.

“YEAH!” he shouted and he was off and running again. Sometimes, without warning, he’d throw himself into my arms, nearly knocking me over. Geeze, that kid has a lot of energy! “You’ve gotta warn me before you do that,” I laughed. He just giggled.

Eventually, I warned Little Guy that I would have to send him back home soon.

“Why?” he asked.

“I’m going to church with my mom,” I said.

“I don’t want you to,” he whined.

“I have to, Buddy. I promised. But you can come over again another day.”

“When you get back?” He asked.

“No, not today,” I said. “I won’t be back for a long while.”

“Ten minutes?” he asked.

“No, Buddy. Longer than that,” I laughed.

“Eleven?”

“No, I’ll be gone a few hours,” I said. “I’m going to have dinner with my mom after church.”

His four year-old attention span put an end to that conversation as he lifted his body to attention and asked, “Where’s Jack?” He was clearly done being sad about my impending departure, and Jack was his new hero.

Jack had wandered out the front door a while earlier, and I explained that he was out front, talking to Little Guy’s daddy. That’s all it took to end his sadness over the end of our play-date, and soon he was slipping his boots and hooded sweatshirt on, and then running across the front yards to join the guys.

My housework wasn’t done, but that’s okay. Little Guy isn’t always going to think I’m so cool and I want to enjoy being looked up to while I still can!