I don’t remember the very last time my brother and I built a world out of Lego and played there in that imaginary land for hours without awareness of our actual surroundings.
I couldn’t tell you when we hit the beach ball over the roof the final time, whacking it as if it were a soft, enlarged version of a volleyball and the house was the net.
Nor do I recall the last time we donned Army surplus helmet liners and matching, tattered, green Army packs stuffed with hand-drawn maps, rock hand grenades, snacks (rations) and official orders compelling us to embark on mysterious adventures. Pipe gun weapons with sanded wooden stocks were firmly clasped in hand by dirty fingers as we ran the neighborhood in search of spies, traitors or treasure.
I have no idea of the last time we climbed the cherry tree and sat hidden among the branches and leaves, munching ripe, juicy cherries while shooing daring, hungry birds away. I can’t recall the last stalk of rhubarb we stole from our grandparent’s garden, the last time we sat in the middle of their blackberry bushes gorging on those delicious delicacies as our fingers and tongues were stained purple by the juice. I don’t remember when we took our final summer bike ride through the back roads that snaked across the countryside surrounding the small town where we grew up. I don’t know when we stopped creating our own board games because the “store-bought” versions were not challenging enough for our tastes. Nor do I remember when we last said goodnight before setting off to our imaginary castles built high in the clouds in a distant, kinder world where we would sleep and dream innocent dreams as only children can.
I can’t remember when I played with my Barbie dolls for the last time. Or the last time I ventured up the ladder of the tree house to travel through time while fighting many battles with the forces of evil. Or perhaps it became a ship that sailed the seas. I don’t know when I jumped rope the last time. Dodged that final ball in a spirited game of dodge ball. Kicked the last soccer ball down the football field next to our elementary school. Climbed my last tree. Drifted on an innertube down a crystal clear creek, never to again relax so completely.
I didn’t know these things would never happen again at the time. I figured I would climb up into the tree house another weekend, ride my bike another summer, save the world when I accepted my next mission. Yet somehow, without notice or ceremony, the Barbie dolls were stored in boxes that were never opened, the balls slowly deflated beneath the workbench in the garage, the tree house ladder rotted, and helmet liners were inexplicably misplaced, never to be found – or thought of – again.
At some point, without realizing it, a page had been turned, a milestone had been reached, a chapter had been completed. And I played for the very last time. One by one, the games of childhood dropped like leaves falling from the trees in autumn. Until suddenly, the tree was completely bare.
It is the nature of time. With its passage, we quietly transition from children to adults. But when we take that last step as a child, we don’t recognize the significance. We don’t even notice that the final thread of the cocoon has been cast aside and left behind. We don’t understand that something has been done that can never be undone.
I do know the last time I played “fox and geese.” It was a moment of passage, one I didn’t recognize so clearly at the time. But, looking back, I can see this was the day I left the last vestiges of my childhood behind. The day I surrendered to reality. The day I could no longer pretend.
Most of my childhood memories are fractured. Fading in and out. Darkness between moments of chilling clarity. This memory is no different in many ways.
It was almost Christmas. My brother and I were on Christmas break, as was my father, a teacher at a school in a nearby city. We woke to a beautiful, deep, delightful snow. And we were appropriately thrilled, vibrating with excitement as we dressed for the cold with layers of socks, sweaters, pants, then boots, coats, hats and gloves.
My father, who was from Michigan, and who knew all the best winter weather games, was the one who suggested we play fox and geese.
He had to teach us the rules. He, the teacher of so many lessons.
Afterward, we were cold, wet and exhausted. We pulled off boots, shook the snow from our coats, laid soaked gloves on the washer and dryer along with socks that were damp in spite of our attempts at weather-proofing. Then we headed to our rooms to change into dry clothing, with the expectation of later enjoying a warm mug of hot chocolate.
I remember the game, this game that I played only one time in my life when I was 10 or 11 years old, because of what came next.
This was the day I could no longer mask my father’s sexual abuse in fantasy.
In younger years, I created a caravan that came to my room each night. The caravan was led by a man who always stopped to visit with me as the heavily-laden camels, laughing children, beautifully dressed women with bells on their fingers and toes, dogs, and other shadowy men slowly crossed the blankets of my bed. The bed had somehow become endless stretches of sand that warmed beneath a hot sun. And the line of the caravan stretched as far as I could see into the distant heat waves that rose from the burning sand. When the final plodding camel had passed and the caravan was fading into the darkness behind me, the man would take his leave with a wave, a bow and a promise to return the next night.
The first time I saw these miniature people walking toward me, I was a terrified 4 or 5 year old child. They visited for years and I slowly came to accept their presence. But I never saw them again after playing fox and geese with my father. They could no longer protect me from the truth of what he was doing. The kisses, caresses, fingers in my vagina. And worse. Over time, he became more and more perverse.
That day, as I dried off in my room, he came in behind me. And with promises of warming me, he did what he had been doing for years. This time, I couldn’t fade into the desert sand or hide with the other laughing children of the caravan. This time, the blankets were only blankets. And I disintegrated.
That day, the child I had been was decimated, fragmented, destroyed. And as I walked out of my room to claim my mug of hot chocolate, I left the broken child, along with the remnants of my soul, behind, laying on the floor in a bloody pile of shattered gore.
Whatever came after is lost in the darkness of the deep wounds I sustained. Numbed by trauma, my world became about survival. Even a castle in the clouds couldn’t protect me.
I don’t remember when I took the final step from childhood into adulthood. I can’t recall the age at which I stopped building a town in the dirt in the crawl space beneath our house. When I put the Mouse Trap game in the closet for the last time. When I stopped believing in the magic of Christmas. But I do know when the child in me finally succumbed to reality and there died an ugly death. When the fantasies and lovely worlds my brother and I created in our minds were not enough to protect me from the damage, the knowledge, the truth.
I know the day I played my last innocent game. That day when I learned to play fox and geese, realized I was the goose, and saw my soul devoured by my lustful, ravenous father. The fox in disguise, unmasked. The day my whole world turned upside down. The day I lost everything.