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Memories of Play 20 Years in the Making

This past weekend I travelled back in time.

How’d I do it? In a spaceship… duh.

This wasn’t just any old spaceship. This was a spaceship that had gone off the grid, unresponsive for the better part of 20 years.

The lead excavator on the mission that returned the spaceship to the light of day was my 4-year-old nephew, Jack. On Saturday, Jack announced to his grandmother that he wanted to play Lego, leading my mom into her attic and returning with three boxes full of my old Legos.

Amid the ruins of old castles diligently constructed along Lego specifications was a true relic from my childhood, a massive spaceship built entirely along the specifications of 10-year-old Bart’s imagination.

I could hardly believe my eyes. I can’t tell you how much time I spent pouring over every detail as I constructed that ship, only to break it apart as I sent enemy toys careening into it so I could learn the ship’s flaws and then reconstruct it bigger and stronger.

Upon unearthing the old spaceship – like a true relic, now split in several parts – uncle and nephew set about restoring it to its former glory. We worked on it for an hour or so, the two of us sitting on the floor, 30 years between us but united in purpose by the power of play and our own imaginations.

As the one legitimate 4-year-old among us, Jack made a bunch of design decisions that weren’t quite in line with my sensibilities (i.e., a Romanesque medieval castle window on the roof of the otherwise oppressively Modernist shuttle), but I let it go. He was rebuilding the spaceship with the same sense of wonder that I built it with in my own salad days.
Properly restored, the spaceship was ready for flight. Using all of his strength, little Jack cradled the craft with both arms before gaining a better grip and sending the shuttle through the air, narrating and sound effect-ing its travels as he twirled around the living room. In the box he found a robot I’d played with in my youth and once more it became an enemy doing battle with the ship, just as it had 20 years earlier.

It was a really special moment, the kind that little in life beyond play can afford.

That afternoon my childhood met Jack’s. Maybe I didn’t literally travel back in time, but I swear to you there was nothing that separated 32-year-old Bart playing with Legos from 10-year-old Bart playing with Legos.

Beyond all the nostalgia, the best part was watching Jack build on what I’d created and make it his own. He’ll have his own memories now of the spaceship, and hopefully there are many more to come.

For his uncle, the spaceship created a new set of memories on Saturday, ones I’ll cherish even more than those dearly held ones from my youth.

Bart Clareman