He didn’t always ask me to play.
And honestly, I was fine with that. My son had an incredible imagination from a young age, which he gladly shared with anyone who would listen — even those whose eyes had glazed over. Grocery store cashiers loved him, quite possibly because they only had to listen for a few minutes each week. He would weave his pretend scenarios with characters he knew from books or various species of dinosaurs, his favorite obsession. He was the kind of kid who soaked up words like a sponge, then spit them out in lengthy sentences that ran together — not much pause for a playmate or mom to chime in.
But I would sit on the cozy, carpeted floor in the sunroom, so happy that we had designated it as the play room from the moment we moved in. Rays of warm sunshine trickled in through the large windows that looked out into our backyard. It was my favorite room in the house, and just hanging out in there made me feel that at least I was doing something right as a mom.
I was playing with him, right?
Occasionally he would offer me a part in his imaginary story, but I didn’t really have any lines of my own. He would assign characters, their habits, their lines. I would either pretend to be the character myself or I would be holding the plastic dinosaur he had assigned me, following along as I was told. I hated the feeling that it wasn’t really fun, but I was amazed at his ability to imagine and pretend and create a world all his own.
I just wasn’t really a part of that world. I was the stagehand, he was the director.
And this is how we played, back when my son was small and his sister hadn’t been born quite yet.
Even when I wasn’t in the room, sitting on the floor and playing with a dinosaur, his monologue followed me throughout the house. As I gathered baskets of laundry or started making dinner in the kitchen, he would call out to me with an update on what was happening in the story. On the occasions when I would interject an idea or a question about his game he was rarely receptive, preferring to run the show the way he saw it in his head. I was happy that he was so easily self-entertained and never heard that characteristic “I’m bored!” statement so common with many kids.
But I felt guilty that I didn’t relish the hours of pretending he could squeeze into a relaxing morning at home.
Several times a week we would take a walk down to the creek near our house, but the entire outing would turn into an extension of whatever pretend scene he had been enjoying at home. I started using these outings as a way to break the monotony of the everlasting game that only he was the master of. I started telling him that sometimes, we needed to leave pretend friends and favorite characters at home.
And we started to find other ways to play.
We started to play board games.
I can’t remember the first board game we tried, but it was a hit. Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly Junior, Scrabble Junior, Go Fish — he loved them all. Playing games with rules and a clear winner and loser was difficult for him at first. Sure, it’s all fun when you’re climbing the ladder in Chutes and Ladders — but hit that chute all the way to the bottom and someone won’t be happy.
But each time we set up the board to start a new game I knew that for that small chunk of time, we were playing. Together. And that with each roll of the dice I was breaking into his world for a short period of time.
I will admit that endless rounds of Chutes and Ladders or Candy Land are not for the faint of heart. There were plenty of games I quite possibly may have “lost” a little bit too easily.
As he got older, we added more complicated games. Battleship, Stratego, checkers, Life, chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, Uno — and game time became a good way for us to connect during an extra-busy week or after a particularly stressful day at school. Words flow more easily when there is the pretense of a game, and it’s not as difficult to ask a hard question or share a particularly bad story from your school day.
We had finally found our play.
My son is in college now. Visits home are spread out, only every few months or so. When he’s home, we all jockey for time with him — the dog, the grandparents, his sister, his dad. Our house comes alive with laughter, teasing and an occasional monologue about college.
No dinosaurs in these tales.
And at least once each visit, when the afternoon is quiet and the initial frenzy of visiting friends and loved ones dies down, I ask.
Do you want to play?
It’s the one game we’ve always found is a common ground. He messes around and creates words that don’t exist, trying to trick me into believing his definitions. I try as hard as I can to beat him, but he’s pretty darn good at Scrabble — and usually wins. If my daughter is around, she will play too, which gives me a chunk of time to listen to them interact and tease each other.
No sound is more precious to me now than the sound of my son’s voice.
There are no characters to play, no lines to repeat.
But we’re playing.
And I love it.