I have always loved to pretend. When I was little I would pretend that I had blue eyes and blond hair. It became so real to me that I remember being stunned one day to see a little girl with brown eyes and a brown bowl-cut staring back at me in the floor length mirror mounted on the back of my parents’ bedroom door.
My sisters and I pretended every scenario we could think of. We were preachers, teachers, shopkeepers, and mothers. We “lived” in tree branches, under the front porch, and in blanket forts. We acted out scenes from TV show, movies, and books.
But at some point during those tricky “tween” years pretending became childish. Instead of Barbie-themed birthday parties, I was invited to pool parties with Duran Duran on the invitation. When I had a friend over, we didn’t play make-believe in the tree house anymore. Instead we rode bikes around the neighborhood to see who was playing in their yard.
I continued to use my imagination but I kept it locked away inside my head. I pretended what it would be like to have a boyfriend without actually having one. I pretended what I would do if my family died in a tragic disaster and I had to make it all alone in this cruel world. I pretended what I would say if a popular girl at school accused me of something and I had to defend myself. (Too many Sweet Valley High books. They’re like pouring gasoline on fire for an already dramatic child.) Even now, I can still create a completely fictional scenario in my head that will bring me to tears.
Having kids is the best thing for a lapsed pretender. It’s like riding a bike—all of those skills come rushing back. I knew exactly how to eat and drink imaginary food when my girls got their play kitchen and we had our first tea party. I quickly realized that their level of fun increased the more I stepped up my pantomiming. (Tip: If you’re new to this, always blow on the cup of tea to indicate that it’s too hot. They love it. I also always accidentally spill my cup on my pants so that I have to wipe it up with an invisible napkin.)
At church last night, I got to have a pretend picnic with a five year-old who has Down Syndrome. He has very limited speech but his imagination is amazing. When he drank invisible liquid from the miniature Tupperware cup, he made very realistic swallowing sounds. Then he picked up a plastic lemon and squeezed it over half of a plastic bun before eating it in giant Cookie Monster bites. He methodically placed plastic French fries in an empty plastic taco shell. As he angled the meal into his mouth, the French fries slipped out the back and fell onto the floor. He laughed until tears welled in his eyes. He was completely engaged in the reality of his pretending.
Now that my daughters are nearing ten, I’m loathed to think that their days of playing house and school will soon be over. I love to walk in on them as they are chastising their imaginary students for being too loud during circle time. My girls call these ghosts out by name: “Polly…you can’t sit by Horace anymore.” They are completely serious. I want to freeze them here. I want their pretend tragedies to be manageable and brief. (Like me, they also love to pretend their family has all died. I blame the Boxcar Children series. I once overheard one of them say, “I wish I was an orphan!” It didn’t hurt my feelings at all.)
They will eventually learn that life is full of painfully real tragedies that they can’t pretend their way out of. Life will turn them upside-down and make them yearn for days spent playing and dreaming. And then one day they will sit across a tiny table from their own children. They will blow away imaginary steam from a tiny plastic teacup and remember how good it feels to pretend again.