I have a grandchild who is now two and a half, and who lives nearby with his parents. The grandchild was born prematurely, just before COVID locked everything down. His grandfather is immune compromised, and until recently the grandchild couldn’t be vaccinated, so he has spent his entire life mostly inside his small family, often out of doors or in one or the other house, avoiding infection.
The plan originally was for me to watch him two days a week until he went to day care at six weeks, but his parents worked at home, so we just kept going. He has his own room in my house, because I had the space, and it has a crib (now youth bed) in it and a closet.
The closet is a place of unimaginable treasure, because I have added things to it gradually, and because two and a half years is a long geologic period if you’re talking accumulation of toy sediment. Along with Legos, wooden train tracks, balls of various types, some art supplies, random household objects, some dress-ups, and a few changes of clothes for those occasions (every time he visits) that he gets thoroughly soaked with the hose in the back yard, there is a bin of tiny cars, scores and scores of them. A pack of five Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars (both the same general size and both now made by Mattel, I think) is really cheap, so I buy him a pack and surprise him with a new vehicle every time he comes. I have a cigar box I found that is called the “car box,” and I change its contents every time he comes over. I always put a new one in the car box and he always finds the new one right away and shows it to me, even though he must have over a hundred vehicles by now. There are sedans, race cars, food trucks, steam-rollers, dump trucks, bulldozers, hot rods, boats, and even helicopters. The grandchild prefers things with wheels. Wheels are the main thing. He also likes bulldozers and other construction equipment, but only if they have wheels.
Not that long ago, I also bought a cheesy-looking blue-and-orange container of Hot Wheels tracks for the tiny cars.
I cannot express how indefinably awful those tracks are. The colors are unpleasant to the eye. The pieces are out of true and they bend and flex in unsightly ways. The joints are not easy to connect, and also not easy to disconnect, but they come apart on their own just fine without any warning. The joints are also oddly unstandardized – depending on whether you are attaching two curves or two straight pieces, or if you are locking a track to the bin that also serves as a foundation, it attaches a different way with different hardware.
He loves those Hot Wheels tracks. When I ask him what he wants to do, he said “Hot Wheels,” in his husky little voice, and he climbs up the stairs ahead of me unless I bring the container down to the living room first. We can spend 45 minutes, which in toddler time is a full day, assembling the tracks, putting the cars on the tracks, and letting them career down the vertiginous and warped tracks to spin out on the wooden floor. Some of the vehicles are too wide or too high to fit, and we discuss their size. I tell him something won’t fit because it’s too big, and he tries anyway, and sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t. The joints, which vary from place to place and are not intuitive, are too finicky for him to assemble just yet, so I have to do it. We sit on the floor surrounded by scattered cars with tracks swooping around us, working intently on the important task of making cars go.
I have the urge to buy a bigger, better set, but then I remember my Grandma’s place. It smelled of cat pee, dirty dishes, and old newspaper, that place, because Grandma was very confused from an early stage of her life and lived with her equally confused oldest son, but she had a wooden ark with wooden Noah characters, and well into my tweens my sister and brother and I enjoyed playing with that thing. We also loved her collection of mantelpiece elephants, and we dug into her piles of newspapers to read the Sunday Inquirer funnies that we missed because Mom and Dad subscribed to the Bulletin. Yeah, the place smelled funky and Grandma and Uncle Brink were beyond peculiar, but we enjoyed it.
My other grandmother, Obie, had an objectively even more wonderful place, because she lived in the countryside with a stream, a pasture, sheep, a pony, a big carriage house full of dangerous outmoded equipment, and a chicken house full of chickens, but in the cold weather and at night, she also had a closet under the stairs. There she kept some white proto-Legos in a cylindrical cardboard tube, a box full of used playing cards, and some jigsaw puzzles. My sister and brother and I, and often our five cousins who lived next door, built card houses and brick castles on her big Oriental carpet in the big room, and then we cleaned up for dinner because Obie was tidy and compos mentis, unlike Grandma.
I am now the grandmother, and therefore I am part of a particular brand of childhood memory, but I’m not the one who makes the memories. The grandchild is the one. I don’t get to judge the aesthetics of those twisty, flimsy vinyl tracks or yearn after something crisp, well-designed, and possibly made out of sanded finished wood. It’s the grandchild who says, when he enters the house, “Hot Wheels?” and we go upstairs because I am his grandmother and this is his grandmother’s house.