When we were kids, playing outside was a required activity. Our mother ordered us to leave the house and ‘get some fresh air.” Until we were old enough to have chores, that’s exactly what we did. We claimed the clovered yards, the dandelioned spaces, the treed empty lots, establishing forts or excavating holes for marble games. We climbed construction equipment, acrobated across the beams of houses under construction, fished in mud puddles. Most of all, we organized games – tag, hide and seek, “Mother, May I?.” Our games were unisex, nondenominational, and equal opportunity melees. Everyone in the neighborhood came to participate. But if age and size did not matter, what did count was a strict adherence to the rules. Break them and you were out.
In “Mother, may I?” one rule was paramount: you had to ask the caller for permission to advance and specify what kind of step you wanted to be given. Giant, small, twirly, jump, hop…ask the wrong question in the wrong voice and you couldn’t move ahead. The “Mother” held the power. Not so different, I suppose, from the real situation in all our households. Father might have had the final word when he returned from work, but during the day, Mother was the one who held the reins, the sergeant who directed the course of our lives. We spent large chunks of our leisure time playing this and other outdoor games. No one wore a watch. I was often late for dinner. My mother, never pleased with my tardy ways, referred me to my father for punishment. I ignored her warnings, seduced by my taste of freedom, the sense of living untethered, unbound. Despite the certain consequences awaiting me, I persisted in coming late to the table.
One of the best things about a childhood spent outdoors is that sense of unscheduled time, how it slows and stretches and offers the long view. Like the giant steps you are ordered to take as you try to reach the caller and win her place for your own. I still spend a great deal of time outdoors, walking neighborhoods and parks. What strikes me now is the emptiness of the lawns, the lack of children’s voices calling each other on the spring wind. I rarely see kites parsing the sky’s phrasing. What once was commonplace has vanished. Now, too often, playtime is structured, orderly, doled out like candy, in small amounts so as not to become an expectation. There is little opportunity for the spontaneous joy, the unexpected wonder.
My life has been a whirlwind this past month. Too much to do, too little time. Both my mother and my mother-in-law are in their nineties, achieving milestones, to be sure, but enduring physical deterioration that precludes the easy grace with which they used to move. Pulling out photographs, I contemplate the ravaging of their once-agile bodies. I ponder, too, my own future, as my past chirps at me. I consider those long-gone days when mothers set the rules and children asked, in whispery voices, “May I?”
I will miss these women who shaped my life, one during my early years, the other throughout my marriage. I do what I can to ease their difficulties, send flowers, bring candy, but it isn’t in the gifts we buy that we prove our love. It is in the way we choose to ask the question. Mother, may I take those steps you couldn’t in the era in which you lived? May I create something of beauty to honor the life you gave me? May I craft a story worth sharing with those who come after me? May I live in the freedom of a life unbound by antiquated restrictions and outdated prejudice?
I listen, with the tiny ear of my heart, to the answer they do not realize they are giving, an answer that matches the question: Yes, daughter, you may take one giant step…into tomorrow. It is an answer I pass on to my own daughters, and to all the women who stand at the edge of the grass, waiting to move on.