When I was little we lived in a tiny house in the woods that offered opportunities of all kinds for play. Pine forest, a crawl space under the house, sheds and ditches and a rose arbor were all perfect for the kinds of games we played. I was only 5 when we moved, but my memories of the little house are vivid. I remember well my first secret hiding place; it was in the woods, surrounded by bushes and not visible to anyone passing on the path nearby. A perfect place to hide.
(photo below was taken in Centreville, before we moved to the big house in Manassas. Apparently a game of cowboys and Indians was in progress.)
Our next house was big and old with large rooms, high ceilings, tall windows, and cool plaster walls. In summer, the windows were open and sliding adjustable screens let in any breezes that might stir the mimosa in Mrs. Blakemore's yard or the old silver maple in our back yard. A large fan on a stand rotated in the dark downstairs entrance hall and often we'd put our fingers through the open cage and let them rat-a-tat-tat on the blades as they whirled. Sometimes an unfortunate child would get their fingers in the wrong place and get whacked hard by the spinning blades, but I don't remember any cuts from the fans.
Dad made schedules for his thirteen children in the summer, and created to-do lists with incentive prizes for doing certain chores. This worked well to motivate us right after school was out, but after a while we'd get tired of the lists or we'd have developed a game we liked to play. So we'd do the assigned work but the incentive lists usually languished after the end of June. Dad's strategy was probably to keep us busy while we adjusted to being home--and to keep us out of Mom's hair while she adjusted to us being home.
By July one or two games were usually in full swing. We didn't play games like most people think of them; for us, games went on for days or weeks, even all summer. Our favorite was the Town we created in the back yard. There was little grass in the area immediately to the right of the back porch steps. We kept it worn off with our play. In the bare dirt we used our little beach shovels or Mom's garden trowel to create roads, dips, curves, intersections, shopping centers, schoolyards and farms. Each of us had a role to play--farmers, mothers, fathers, shopkeepers, teachers, doctors. I was usually the orphanage keeper and my name in our games was Uncle John and Aunt Susie (dual personality, I guess). Many an emergency, conflict, injury, death, wedding and party happened in the course of an afternoon ---who needed General Hospital with all the drama we had going on in our yard?
When it rained the fun moved indoors. Upstairs would become a Wild West town. We'd raid the attic for clothes, Joe would wear his play gun and holster, someone would have the popgun, and always we'd have a dance with Joe as the caller, standing on the dresser and singing ("I belong, I belong, on the lo-o-o-ne pray-er-ee"). Indians would raid, cattle stampede, gunfights were many and bloody and bodies often littered the floor. Joe or Tom played the sheriff and would pronounce guilt or innocence and generally keep the peace. When the town got too rowdy, the real boss--Mom--would make us settle down.
We played long-running Monopoly games that resembled some of the pictures I've seen of poker games--intent faces, piles of money, deal-making and breaking, occasional fights and tears. A single game once lasted almost a month, with money changing hands as quickly, and probably as crookedly, as on Wall Street.
When we got tired of each other's company, we all had our secret hiding places. I had several: the attic was best for reading, and there was always a breeze through the little half-moon window in front with the far-off view of the Bull Run Mountains. Under the front porch was cool and damp and kind of scary, and a good place to go with Judy if we wanted to be alone. The cherry trees were excellent in June when they were filled with cherries and a girl could climb into the branches and eat to her heart's content. There were plenty for me, the birds and for mom's jam-making. The side yard with my redbud tree and bluebell garden was fairly sheltered and if Miss Mary, who lived next door, wasn't home I could climb up into the redbud tree where I would be out of sight and could spy on brothers and sisters who played on the swingset. Why did I want to spy on them? I have no idea. Maybe I should blame it on Nancy Drew, since I read every one of those books and all of the Hardy Boys too during my attic visits.
I wonder if children still play games like these, and if they still have secret hiding places? As an adult, I sometimes long for the redbud tree and the sanctuary it offered when my little life felt too tumultuous and overcrowded with siblings.
Tipper's daughters still have that magical gift of childhood, the gift of play. I hope there are many other children out there with the same gift, touching the past and inventing futures to suit themselves. I am afraid that today's children are losing the magic of creative play. I hope that in some small town in America, there is a child building a castle under the dining room table or a fort behind the sofa. I hope a little girl or boy is exploring under a forsythia bush and finding a hidden-way world that only he or she knows. I want to believe that children are still chasing birds with salt shakers, looking for four-leaf clovers, lying on their backs and finding shapes in the clouds, catching tadpoles in puddles and finding wild berries along the sides of dusty roads.
I hope childhood is still the place of possible hopes and inspired dreams, where anything can and will happen for the child who imagines it into being.
Granddaughter Haley in the yellow apple tree--one of her hiding places at my house.