Ten minutes into sandbox play, I wanted to go home. I sat across from Keven Ward. Kevin was in 5th grade. I was in 6th. Kevin, a toe-headed, skinny lad, avidly plowed with his Tonka Toy bulldozer. I was less enthusiastic.
I felt odd, because for the previous ten years, just about everything I got my hands on became a car or truck--or bulldozer--or some vehicle I pretend to drive.
Suddenly, watching Kevin move sandy earth and listening to truck sounds coming from his mouth as we sat in front of the ranch office his parents owned, I was aware of how uninspired I was to do the same.
Instead of feeling the fun, I felt guilty. Guilty for leaving Kevin. I was still there in the sandbox, but emotionally, I had left the play space in which he was earnestly engaged.
Kevin was nice enough to invite me to play. He was cool enough--not that cool meant much to me at that point in my life. His family had a ranch. They had a college bookstore, both of which held enough adventure for two grade-school kids, and enough trouble to tactfully avoid. They had a camper, a Winnebago in which they took me on two camping trips. They were all nice to me.
And maybe that is why that leaving felt like such a betrayal.
But I had already left that childhood space before I got there. It was the first time I had any concept of my own personal maturation--real change that was, for some reason, more powerful than graduating to footless pajamas, being able to bike across town on my own, or even later, getting behind the wheel of the huge family station wagon.
I had an awareness that, at that moment, different from any other moment during the time I had known Kevin, I was older than him. Somehow, we had lost, without either of us noticing, a big chunk of peer space, the space where we could both be excited by toy cars and making truck noises and having that be enough to keep us entertained and connected with each other.
The next year, I would be in junior high and Kevin would still be at our grade school. I am not sure how many little boy things I had shed by the time I reached junior high, and how many I carried with me. A pile of toy cars that I left in the toy bins of our basement were not missed, but even today, the loss of a baseball glove is devastating. (I am still mourning the loss of a baseball glove I acquired in college.)
But losing friends from childhood is inevitable. The guilt of not knowing how to bring Kevin, occupied with the amusement of the toy bulldozer, into my emerging adolescence has belatedly transformed into a mild grief. Today, I am none-the-wiser, except to understand that I have grown out of friends and they have grown out of me, and it is a blameless loss. And it is a constant renewal with joy, pain and pangs of longing for past simplicities and futures not yet achieved.
I think of this today as I think of an old photograph of the old gang, Kevin included. We are posing with our baseball gloves on the vacant lot behind a house of another friend. We all seem happy with the sun beaming down on us, glad there are just enough to field a two teams for pick-up sand lot. I am wearing a glove that I still have today, one I pull out when an emergency game of catch breaks out and a kid needs a glove to participate.
I still have the memories of that lot, the place, the faces and the fun we had. A couple of these kids are still friends. But more is different than the same, as it should be.
And I look at my son and the relationships he has, how they have transformed and what it will mean in the future, what they have meant in the past, the joys, the heartaches and the wondering: what will happen in later days—or even with the passing of the next summer. I look at some of his friends and see Kevin in them—and sometimes in him. I see Kevin in myself.
In the mean time, it is a luxurious discovery to find that adult fun is really kid fun. It is a luxury because what I see as recreation is really the life work of the young while for us grown people, it is just play. It is adult because I am old enough to see that those things are so good for our mind and body. Our creative imaginations. An academic test of how we interact with others and care for their fun and well-being. Only games.
And most of the time, the grief that comes from winning or losing—either the game or the friend, is more a lesson than permanent injury, and we pick up with life and the kids who happen to be on hand for the next game, lesson and adventure.
And in the mean time, it is fun because it is fun. And now, more so than before, it is fun because I can see it in the faces and bodies of the children in addition to feeling it myself. And in the mean time, I can tell myself that I have at least grown a little.