Before I moved back to Anchorage I often took my niece and her two boys out to eat. I still do, sometimes, but lately have been focused on setting aside dollars for a trip the four of us hope to take this summer.
One recent Sunday when DF had business out of town I invited Alison and the boys over. I knew I’d need to feed them but our kitchen is stocked for frugal grownups. What did we have that would appeal to a couple of hollow-legged boys?
Then I flashed back on a game my daughter used to play: “Dinner and Movie.” She’d make up a menu based on what was in the fridge and we’d play restaurant, then watch something I’d videotaped (remember videotapes?) or just watch TV.
Thus was born “Café Awesome.”
I made up a brunch menu divided into starters, entrees, sides, beverages and desserts. When the boys arrived I told them we’d be serving their mom as though she were at a restaurant. I gave each a cook’s apron and a few instructions, then set out a beer stein of DF’s, which rings a small bell when you open the lid.
Moments later Britain was showing his mother to the kitchen table and handing her the menu, which I’d affixed to a clipboard. He carefully printed her order on a scratch pad and set the page on the butcher-block counter (just steps away, but in our game a separate kitchen area).
Ding! “Order in!” the 6-year-old waiter said.
His 11-year-old brother (whom you may remember from “Malachi and mud”) was the chef and I was the manager. I think Malachi’s favorite part was opening the beer stein as each course was ready: “Order up!”
The novelty of the game kept them from noticing that they were eating some pretty ordinary fare: rolls and butter, sausage patties, oatmeal, mandarin oranges. I was delighted: If we’d gone to IHOP the tab would have been $30 or more (plus tax and tip).
After his mother had eaten, Britain invited her to relax in the restaurant’s “lounge,” i.e., the living room. Although she’d brought her Kindle, Alison was soon dozing on the couch. (Elementary school teacher and single mom of two active boys and a hyperactive dog? I’m surprised she could stay awake long enough to finish her strawberries.)
“I want someone to take my order,” Britain said. The three of us served one another and tidied up. Then I decided to occupy the kids elsewhere for a while so their mom could nap.
That’s when I learned that my play skills were pretty rusty.
Too old to see
Café Awesome was easy, because it was make-believe with a beginning, middle and end. But DF’s basement proved a more changeable area of enchantment.
The boys are fascinated by that basement, because so few houses in Anchorage have them. It’s a decent-sized area with a homemade sauna, shelves for storage, an old desk and a ton of the sorts of things that end up in cellars (boots, canning jars, crates, tools).
Before I knew it the basement was a spaceship being attacked by aliens. Britain hurried me into the sauna so we could hide from the intruders. Malachi had a scrap-wood light saber, and I’d given Britain a jar wrench. It was supposed to have been some kind of phaser – but opened up, it looked more like a bow. To him, anyway.
“I’m from ‘The Hunger Games’!” he said. “What’s her name?”
“Katniss,” his brother supplied.
“Katniss! I’m Katniss Everdeen!”
But we’re in outer space…. I started to say, and then realized that there are no rules against mashups in make-believe.
So I just went with it. A few minutes later I found a wine-bottle-sized gift bag and offered it to Britain as a quiver for pretend arrows. But the string on the bag was too short to go over his shoulder so I ran upstairs for an old shoelace. (I also threw in some of those chopsticks for ammo.)
My nephew happily accepted the bag. I realized that he still didn’t have a string for his bow, but that it was OK: He’d been reaching over his shoulder into an invisible quiver and pulling out invisible arrows before I gave him the makeshift ones. Clearly there was a string on his bow. I was just too old to see it.
Childhood is fleeting
A couple of hours of running and ducking and hiding plus probably half a dozen trips up and down the cellar steps left me really bushed. But it was a good workout for my head as well as my body.
Immersing myself in the language of play helped me see the world a little differently for a little while. It was a world where a creaking sound overhead became an alien footfall and a jar wrench the weapon that saved us.
Café Awesome has been open twice since, and so has the freeform make-believe. Technically I don’t have to play downstairs with them, but the basement is pretty well organized and I’d like it to stay that way. Ground rules may be imparted and agreed to but sometimes there’s a disconnect between the brain and the hands. Donna said “Don’t touch anything” but OMG it’s an old-school game system and a box of games! I wonder what kind of games?
Besides, I’m acutely aware that this kind of play has a very short shelf life. All too soon Malachi won’t have the slightest interest in hanging out with his brother and auntie. Pretending to be a chef will seem silly or, worse, boring. His play skills will atrophy the way mine did. The basement will be a basement once more.