Timeless Toys

Question #6:
In your opinion, what is the most timeless toy?

There’s something special about the smell of wooden blocks. It’s different from the scent of freshly cut lumber, different from the smell of any other wood blocks. It’s sweeter, earthier, darker and lighter at once, as if somehow, wooden blocks, and especially wooden blocks that have been handled (sometimes rather roughly) by the tiny hands of more than one generation, hold within them the essence of youth, the spirit of play, the kernel of imagination, and the garden of dreams, all compressed, folded in on themselves time after time, until what remains is a fairly innocuous object.

But what possiblities are in that object!

We talk about metaphorical building blocks all the time, protein, fundamental education, basic cooking skills, these are the building blocks of bodies, intellect, life skills.

Just as important are the building blocks we once used to actually, you know, build.

I remember sitting on the rug in the den near the ghastly yellow recliner my grandfather so loved, arranging blocks into different configurations. The same collection of rectangular and square bits of wood would form in rapid succession: the cages in a zoo, a sky scraper, a tree house, a log cabin, a ship, a town square, a mansion, a thought, a hope, a dream…

I remember the alphabet blocks, with their paint faded, chipped and worn, so the letters on them were as much as mystery as whose hands held them first. (Perhaps my mother, or her older brother, or one of my cousins?)

I remember a faded green rectangular block so old it’s edges had softened, rounded, blurred. It was the size of a bar of soap, a matchbox car, a wish.

I remember my grandfather insisting I sort the blocks by color, shape, and size before I could build (he was just as anal with the tinker toys, with the train sets, with everything). “Lay out your lumberyard,” he would coach, and I would tuck my braids behind my ears and willingly comply.

I remember feeling wistful, when I was too old for blocks, and passed them down to a younger cousin, a child who couldn’t possibly have appreciated them the way I did. The way I do.

I remember my grandfather’s hands, calloused, gnarled, thickened with age, when he would help me build, and I remember his regretful expression the year he could no longer hunker down on the floor and play with me, the year he was relegated to the sidelines of building block play.

We switched to breadmaking after that. I always thought it was because he just liked to bake. Now I wonder if maybe something in those golden loaves, rectangular, firm, loaves, reminded him of blocks.