By Kathryn Esplin
When I was growing up, dinner-table conversation often revolved around scientific discourse, the recitation of poetry composed during dinner, and the recollection of past travel and of lands not yet tasted.
After dinner activity lay somewhere between bedlam, a genteel retirement to the parlor, and my father’s customary Beethoven piano recital. These evenings held some of the fondest memories of my early family life.
By this time, I was in college and was deemed too mature to accompany my siblings and their friends for the usual summer after-dinner games. My parents expected me to remain in the parlor to discuss the topics of the evening: often, these discourses began as quasi-serious philosophical treatises; then, as the evening progressed and as wine loosened our dinner guests’ inhibitions, the discussion lapsed into games of matching wits or attempts to convert sophomoric arguments into sound arguments.
Personally, I found these affairs tedious.
The conversation paled in comparison with the genuinely sophomoric arguments we college freshmen held late into the night. The topics my student friends and I had discussed revolved around relationship blunders, broken hearts, on how to get hot people into your bed, and on which frosh course is best to take to avoid flunking out.
In my parents’ middle-aged world, they were trying to appear young, with-it and collegiate. The main difference was that my college pals and I were actually living the fantasies that society awarded us: the right to behave less maturely than ever before.
My middle-aged parents tried to recover their youthful experiences by dredging up memories of their youth, then presenting them to me as if their follies were more real than those my pals and I experienced – or that their experiences were more important than mine because theirs were concerned with ‘social issues,’ ‘the revolution,’ and ‘unprecedented cultural change.’
If my parents expected me to pale before their exhortations of the 60’s, I wouldn’t. I explained: I wasn’t there, I didn’t do all those things. In truth, much of that era is lost on me, except for the carefully crafted ideologies published in my ‘Contemporary American History, or in my ‘Culture and Politics’ class.
And so my summer evenings at home were spent listening to the old folks talk about their youth, while I wished I could return to my youth and freedom, as I was living it in college.
And as much as I longed to break free from my parents’ lives, I did not want to join my younger siblings in their youthful games in the garden. So I remained wedged between yesterday and tomorrow, with little breathing room for today.
I longed for a magic hour.
My younger sisters and my younger brother seemed to have the world at their feet. They would gather at the edge of the parlor door, stand on their tiptoes with their necks craned as they stood together in a huddle – appearing as a clumsy cluster of children trying to look taller, older and more responsible than they actually were.
The reason for their awkward anticipation was no more complex than their desire to engage in a game of tug-of-war, tag, or in a treasure hunt. They were as bored with the grown-ups, just as I was.
At these appearances, my siblings often brought young neighborhood friends, who also begged for an hour of unrestrained silliness before bedtime.
And so this motley crew of scrubbed, groomed and usually polite children transformed into a gaggle of children whose plaited locks and combed tresses became ruffled, whose knickers became ruined with muddy grass stains and whose Oxfords became unrecognizably scuffed.
But it was this one magic hour each day that gave them their simplest pleasure: to be children.
Not until they were to leave home for college would they again find this simple pleasure. It was during these unsupervised moments that my siblings had the pleasure of being themselves without interference from a grown-up. Such an appearance by a grown-up would undoubtedly leave an invisible scar upon these games, or so the kids believed.
A magical tension lifted the night air.
Even a grown-up’s unwitting glance from behind a tree would break the tension in which these games were engulfed. During these games, self-consciousness did not exist and the children played as they never played before and as they never would again.
One summer evening, as my uncle was strolling alone in the garden after dinner, he seemed to feel a deep pang to return to his childhood days.
In walking around the garden, my uncle did not make any deliberate motion to signal his presence to anyone. He was not even aware that children were in the garden.
But upon looking over a hedgerow too high for children to see over but just high enough for my uncle to peer over, an occasion arose in which my uncle accidentally caught my younger brother’s eye across the hedge.
My brother and his friends were pulling on a heavy rope in a deadly serious game of tug-of-war against my sisters and her friends. Never mind that my sisters and her friends outnumbered my brother and his friends two-to-one -- the boys tried their mightiest to yank the rope so they could catch the girls in a tumble so the girls would have to let go of the rope only to land unceremoniously on their bottoms, muddying their petticoats and dresses.
This is exactly what happened. The boys gave a quick, hard double-yank to the rope, then let up some slack. When my brother caught my sisters not paying attention to the fierce competition, my brother winked to his friends that the end was soon at hand.
The boys then gave another quick, hard double-yank, let up a little more slack and then gave a final, quick double-yank that rippled through the length of the rope like the crack of a whip. The boys knew the game soon would be theirs.
My sisters and her friends were caught by surprise -- and one-by-one, from the youngest to the oldest – the girls let go of the rope as the tugs and yanks from the rope stung their tiny hands.
Caught off-guard, the girls slipped and slid in the muddy grass and landed on their bottoms, lacy petticoats and all. They wore a look of shame on their faces, and the boys laughed aloud.
At first, the oldest of my younger sisters was vengeful. She did not like being beaten by our brother and his ragtag friends.
Unbeknownst to the boys, my sisters and their friends were plotting their revenge, which they promised would show its hand another day.
They’d catch a dozen garden toads to hide in my brother’s drawer next to his bed, and would open the drawer after he went to sleep. The thought of this future sisterly mischief comforted the girls and mitigated their embarrassment. And so, after an initial pout from the girls’ team, they all shared a good laugh.
Upon standing up, my brother was the first to see my uncle looking over the hedge. My uncle had seen everything. My uncle had been an unwitting party to this brotherly mischief. My brother dusted himself off and gathered all the pride he could muster, at 14 years of age.
My brother looked sheepishly at my uncle for having been caught as the instigator of such mischief. In turn, my uncle blushed in shame for having unwittingly spied upon their game and for having spoiled their fun.
Even though only a brief moment lapsed, the lapse stretched into an eternity etched in the children’s souls. At the moment the children became aware my uncle had spied upon their frolic, they stood freeze-frame and slack-jawed with disappointment widening their eyes.
They and my uncle exchanged knowing glances of mutual embarrassment.
For several years afterwards, other summer evenings would see my siblings and their friends play their usual repertoire of garden games. Not one word was ever spoken about the incident concerning my siblings and my uncle, but that moment had dampened their future fun.
After that evening, their games were never as silly nor as spontaneous as they had been before. The invisible, magic hour of non-self-conscious play seemed to be lost forever.
The girls did capture the dozen toads and let them loose upon our brother one night that summer as he lay sleeping. He let out a yelp so shrill that the dog turned tail and fled the room. The girls squealed with delight as they hid behind the French doors, listening.
The girls were now even with the boys, but they took little satisfaction in their deceit. The incident concerning my uncle took the fun out of their child’s play.
Before I ran off to college the first year, the children would run back to the house after playing, all giddy and stumbling over each other as they pushed through the kitchen’s back door.
Now they entered the house in an orderly, somber fashion. They were older and they no longer played as children, but as young adults, whose actions were performed as purposeful actions.
When I returned to college that fall, I am certain the children played these same garden games nearly every warm night. I am certain they laughed and cried as they had done before and that they seemed to be without a care in the world.
Sitting in my dorm these past few months, I, too, remembered that evening last summer that droned on as my parents sang old ‘60s protest songs, prayed for the young men and women who did not return home from war, and decided for themselves that their youthful years were the best of times.
That same evening last summer, my siblings came to the same conclusion – that they had enjoyed the best of times of their very short youth that the magic hour of their childhood was forever lost.
Looking back upon that summer (and the incident between my uncle and my siblings), I realized I was forever wedged between the world of my parents and that of my siblings, and that the magic hour was not lost but would be forever lodged within in our memories, as the hour when we experience something never before or since experienced.