Sym­met­ri­cal Build


M O L L Y A N D I A R E C H A T T I N G , and Lego is spread out all around us at the din­ing room table in dis­or­dered piles, but also sorted by colour group in sand­wich bags and stored by set in sealed plas­tic con­tain­ers. My daugh­ter is eight years old, and she’s free-build con­struct­ing a med­i­cal clinic for op­tometrist cats and sur­geon kit­tens while I’m set-build con­struct­ing the Le­goCity Light Re­pair Truck (60054-2013). In my fin­gers, the tops of bricks fit into the bot­toms of other bricks with a snug tac­tile clack, and pro­duce such a dis­tinct sense mem­ory that I am also seven or eight years old and free-build­ing a CN Tower with my older brother, ten years old and set-build­ing the Le­goland Fire Pumper Truck (6690-1980) with my older sis­ter, and twenty-nine years old play­ing with a pile of mis­matched bricks with my young niece.

Th­ese mem­o­ries be­gin when Molly is four, and her very first set is a Bricks and More set (4625-2011) from the Build and Re­build theme—which is soon af­ter re­branded as Le­goJu­niors—but over the next four years, she ac­quires sets in var­i­ous themes through which I can track her growth and many change­able child­hood in­ter­ests: Ariel’s Amaz­ing Trea­sures (41050-2013) in the Le­goDis­ney theme, Mia’s Magic Show (41001-2012) from the Le­goFriends theme, Stunt Plane (60019-2013) from the Le­goCity theme, Fierce Flyer Ea­gle (310042013) in the Le­goCreator 3-in-1 theme, and Ninja Jun­gle Trap (707522015) in the Le­goNin­jago theme. There is much more—a quan­tity that fills me with con­cur­rent pride and em­bar­rass­ment—and we can pass hours, af­ter­noons, and whole week­ends at the din­ing room table sur­rounded by our works-in-progress. For her first few sets, she needs as­sis­tance.

Much like the Lego of my child­hood, the sets of my daugh­ter’s gen­er­a­tion in­clude in­tu­itive in­struc­tions with beau­ti­fully pre­cise line draw­ings, all of them word­less. In th­ese in­struc­tions, each clev­erly con­structed build­ing and ve­hi­cle and dio­rama grows in clear, care­ful in­cre­ments step by step. Un­like the Lego in­struc­tions of my child­hood, how­ever, th­ese con­tem­po­rary il­lus­tra­tions in­clude a run­ning in­ven­tory with each step. Step 7 of the Lego City Stunt Plane (600192013) re­quires two one-by-one wedges in black. Step 11 of Ariel’s Amaz­ing Un­der­sea Trea­sures (41050-2013) re­quires two one-by-two slope bricks in bright rose. Step 6 in Mia’s Magic Show (41001-2012) re­quires two one-by-three plates in medium taupe.

The in­no­va­tion of this run­ning in­ven­tory as­sists me when Molly needs as­sis­tance, for I can find and col­lect in­di­vid­ual pieces one or two steps ahead of her con­struc­tion and feed them to her as her build pro­gresses. Early on, she some­times puz­zles over the pieces I pass her, turn­ing them in her hand to fig­ure out the cor­rect po­si­tion­ing and place­ment, and some­times she puts the pieces in the wrong place. When this hap­pens, I some­times in si­lence watch her strug­gle, I some­times sug­gest she keep try­ing, and I some­times help her find a so­lu­tion. There is a temp­ta­tion to think of the process as a metaphor for par­ent­hood, of course, but then since be­com­ing a par­ent, I have been tempted to think of too many things as a metaphor for par­ent­hood. So I re­sist the temp­ta­tion, be­cause re­ally, what more plea­sure might a metaphor bring?

My daugh­ter and I lis­ten to mu­sic while we build and we snack while we build, but what oc­cu­pies us most is chat­ting, and it too is a plea­sure. Do­ing chat­ting, as she says for a won­der­ful stretch of her lan­guage devel­op­ment, and though she only now uses the phrase in her eight-year-old sar­donic voice, I can hear it as clearly as the many other lan­guage mile­stones she moves through at the din­ing room table—her cov­etous in­sis­tence upon My Daddy in­stead of Daddy, her ir­reg­u­lar use of ir­reg­u­lar verbs when we dranked a drink and ated a snack, and her dou­bling of the com­par­a­tive be­cause few things are more bet­ter than an af­ter­noon of Lego.

One of the few things that might be more bet­ter is our shared in­ter­est in and en­thu­si­asm for read­ing—aloud and to­gether be­fore bed­time, but also any­time and any­where and si­lent and to­gether— and this is what we are do­ing one Sun­day af­ter­noon when she brings me a won­der­ful gift. In our home, the best room for read­ing is the fire­place room with the fire­place that’s never been lit and with fur­ni­ture bought pur­posely for read­ing. Molly is eight years old and is in

the chaise lounge with a hand-me-down chap­ter book from my older sis­ter and I’m on the loveseat with a se­cond­hand col­lec­tion of short sto­ries when she passes me some­thing across the rolling cof­fee table. “Look at this,” she says.

What she passes to me is a folded in­struc­tion sheet for the Le­goland Fire Pumper Truck (6690-1980), and what I want to say is holy shit, but I don’t.

“Good­ness,” I say in­stead.

Be­cause a child’s con­cept of time is im­pre­cise, the date of the Lego CN Tower that my brother and I con­structed in our shared apart­ment bed­room is hard to pin down. How­ever, I can be sure this date was long be­fore the in­tro­duc­tion of the Lego Friends theme. Be­fore the sim­ple yel­low smi­ley faces of minifig faces gained mus­taches, glasses, scars, fur­rowed brows, crow’s feet, and an in­cal­cu­la­ble num­ber of fea­tures and ex­pres­sions with expansion of the Lego Pi­rates theme. Be­fore Lego Land be­came Lego Town be­came Lego City through the un­apolo­getic and in­evitable process of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Be­fore the pop­u­lar­ity and sales of Space Lego sets mo­men­tar­ily sur­passed that of Lego City po­lice and fire sets, and even be­fore the revo­lu­tion of minifigs them­selves, the most trans­for­ma­tional change of all changes in the toy com­pany’s his­tory. This was when we had but six colours of brick. Be­fore bright rose and medium taupe, there was red, yel­low, blue, green, black and white.

My brother, my mother and I all lived in an apart­ment in the city when my brother and I built the CN Tower, and now that I think about it, we lived in that apart­ment for less than a year, and so I must have been eight years old, the age at which my daugh­ter is now. My brother would have been nine or ten, and in a rare mo­ment of co­op­er­a­tion, we had pooled to­gether all our dis­parate bricks of six colours to free build our own CN Tower, the largest struc­ture we could conceive of at the time. It was mis­matched and prob­a­bly struc­turally un­sound, but Lego is very good at symmetry, and our wob­bly con­struc­tion would have been more-or-less sym­met­ri­cal. Taller than our bunk beds, it reached all the way to the pop­corn stucco of our bed­room ceil­ing and greatly im­pressed our mother’s boyfriend, who had then been her boyfriend for four years and who had three daugh­ters of his own. It so im­pressed him that he rushed off to the kitchen to tele­phone Guin­ness and tell them of our achieve­ment. Com­ing back to our bed­room with a troubled ex­pres­sion, he re­ported that there was an­other im­pres­sive CN Tower built by some chil­dren far off

some­where in far­thest Scan­di­navia, and so the com­pe­ti­tion would be close, but rest as­sured, he told us, the good peo­ple at Guin­ness would cer­tainly tele­phone back be­fore en­ter­ing a fi­nal judge­ment into their Book of World Records. They never did call back.

The next year, he mar­ried my mother and be­came my sec­ond fa­ther. My Dad. Some years later, I re­al­ized that he of course never tele­phoned Guin­ness, but was just very good with chil­dren, and years later still, I won­dered if it was at that mo­ment my mother de­cided to marry him. I re­al­ized that we were liv­ing in that apart­ment only be­cause our first fa­ther had left us and my mother was prob­a­bly fi­nan­cially un­able to keep us in our town­house home. Decades later, when the woman who would be­come my wife and I were fall­ing in love, we vis­ited the ac­tual CN Tower, where near the gift shop there stood a two-storey, ac­cu­rate-to-scale-and-colour-scheme Lego tower of en­vi­able beauty, and I told her about the pre­tend phone call. Later still—long af­ter I stopped think­ing of him as my sec­ond fa­ther, long af­ter he had been My Dad for decades, long af­ter my mother had died and he grew el­derly, and af­ter his third co­matose trip to the ICU—I was yet again driv­ing from my city to his city to watch him sleep in the hospi­tal, and I un­der­stood that I would even­tu­ally get a tele­phone call from my older sis­ter and I would even­tu­ally want to com­pose a eu­logy to memo­ri­al­ize and honour him prop­erly. What I thought of was the day my brother and I made our Lego CN tower and he lied about tele­phon­ing Guin­ness, and I thought it would be a pretty good mem­ory to share. When he died and I was com­pos­ing my eu­logy, I for­got to in­clude the mem­ory, but that was all right be­cause I had many, many other mem­o­ries to in­clude.

Al­though I did pos­sess some sets be­fore the in­no­va­tion of 1978, I can­not re­mem­ber the in­tro­duc­tion of minifigs—the space rangers, fire fight­ers and po­lice of­fi­cers who brought scale and re­la­tional di­men­sion upon Le­goland, forc­ing all build­ing door­ways to com­ply with a five-brick height and forc­ing all ve­hi­cles to com­ply with a four-stud width—but the change must have been as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as the birth of one’s first child. I do re­mem­ber my first Le­goland minifig set, how­ever: the Mo­bile Rocket Launcher (462-1978), which came with one space ranger in red and one in white and which came as a gift dur­ing one of the noisy and hec­tic Christ­mas, Easter or birth­day cel­e­bra­tions of my re­built fam­ily. The term “blended fam­ily” has never ap­pealed to me, but with Christ­mases, Easters, seven birthdays to cel­e­brate, a new baby half-sis­ter and yet an­other birth­day to cel­e­brate, we must

have pro­duced a hec­tic noise that couldn’t help but blend us. Our fam­ily moved from one city to a town and to yet an­other city, and there were more Space Lego gifts. Al­though I hope I will not grow into the kind of re­tired man who fills his basement with pol­ished glass dis­play cases of toys and col­lectibles, all chil­dren are en­tirely and will­ingly help­less against their ac­quis­i­tive col­lec­tor im­pulses, and af­ter the Mo­bile Rocket Launcher (462-1978) came the Space Trans­port (918-1979), the Mo­bile Ground Track­ing Sta­tion (894-1979) and the Starfleet Voy­ager (6929-1981). The crown jewel of my col­lec­tion was the Beta I Com­mand Base (6970-1980), a larger play­set that in­cluded a sur­face rover, a cruiser jet and a launch pad that was con­nected to the re­search lab and as­tro­naut liv­ing quar­ters by a mono­rail. A mono­rail!

Be­cause chil­dren sel­dom con­sider such fam­ily mat­ters, I hardly no­ticed that my re­built fam­ily was en­tirely and in­tractably blended and bonded by this time. I was, how­ever, re­minded by week­end vis­i­ta­tions to my first fa­ther. As a con­sta­ble and un­der­cover of­fi­cer for the Metro Toronto Po­lice, my first fa­ther may or may not have been re­spon­si­ble for the few Lego Town po­lice sets that ap­peared in my col­lec­tion—the Po­lice Head­quar­ters (588-1978) and Po­lice He­li­copter (645-1979)—but I don’t re­call. While he has never been close enough to be close and never quite far enough to be es­tranged, he is nonethe­less now the only grand­fa­ther I have left to of­fer my daugh­ter. He is the kind of man who has filled his basement with dis­play cases of toys and col­lectibles, an ob­ses­sion that be­gan with Match­box cars dur­ing the decades he worked for the po­lice force and be­came Lego minifigs and cre­ator mod­ules dur­ing the re­tire­ment years he man­aged a Toys R Us lo­ca­tion in the city. Dur­ing this same pe­riod, he re­mar­ried, ended an­other mar­riage, and be­gan a third. Also dur­ing this pe­riod, his col­lec­tions filled the basement, crept up the stairs, scat­tered around the main floor, and have now taken over an up­stairs bed­room and of­fice.

Once, dur­ing one of our an­nual vis­its, I re­marked that his car col­lec­tion will even­tu­ally be worth more than the house we were sit­ting in, and my re­mark was fol­lowed by an awk­ward pause in which I came to un­der­stand that the col­lec­tion was, in fact, long ago worth much more than the house. Sev­eral times over. I some­times worry that such a col­lec­tor gene may be buried deep some­where in my de­oxyri­bonu­cleic acid with god-knows-what-else. When I fin­ish read­ing a book, the com­pul­sive in me must right away al­pha­bet­ize it in the right place in the right genre on the right shelf in my basement. When I en­joy a book, the com­pletist in me must read each and ev­ery

book in the au­thor’s bio. When I have been al­tered by a book, the ob­ses­sive in me must read the ac­knowl­edge­ments page, the quo­ta­tions of re­views, the copy­right page, and some­times the note on the type. But then again, th­ese are the habits of all good read­ers, and the worry does not ruin our vis­its to my fa­ther’s home, which are mostly fine. My fa­ther of­ten has du­pli­cate minifigs that he passes along to my daugh­ter, and I can see the de­lib­er­ate so­lic­i­tous­ness in his ges­ture. It is a wish to build a con­nec­tion—with Molly and with me—and I cau­tiously thank him. Be­cause chil­dren sel­dom con­sider such com­pli­cated mat­ters, she gives him a hug for both of us.

At eight, Molly will still some­times call me My Daddy, but does so only to re­mind us both of our shared mem­ory. This is yet an­other un­ex­pected plea­sure of par­ent­hood, of course—the re­al­iza­tion that along with our rit­u­als and rou­tines, our shared in­ter­ests and en­thu­si­asms, and all of our many run­ning jokes, my child and I have de­vel­oped our own shared mem­o­ries—and yet again, what I want to say is holy shit.

Along with the one or two po­lice sets, I was as a child given a hand­ful of Lego Town fire sets, in­clud­ing the Le­goland Fire Pumper Truck (6690-1980), and the in­struc­tions that Molly hands to me are from this set. Un­fold­ing the creased sheet in the fire­place room, I im­me­di­ately rec­og­nize the pho­to­graph of the fire chief and lad­der op­er­a­tor minifigs posed in front of the red and black brick build truck, and the beau­ti­fully pre­cise line draw­ings. And I’m also back in my child­hood basement some thirty-five years ear­lier.

“Good­ness, where did you find this?” I ask Molly.

But I ask the ques­tion and fig­ure out the an­swer at the same time.

Though the na­ture of mem­ory makes a date dif­fi­cult to pin down, my in­ter­est in and en­thu­si­asm for the beau­ti­ful symmetry of Lego bricks and all the cit­i­zenry of Le­goland lasts un­til I am per­haps eleven or twelve. Al­ways care­ful with my toys, I place each in­struc­tion book­let in a sand­wich bag and store all my sets in sealed plas­tic con­tain­ers, putting away child­ish things for the time be­ing but mov­ing them with me from one house to apart­ment to house. Af­ter the death of our mother, my sis­ter—who I have long ago for­got­ten is a step­sis­ter— wor­ries about our dad and me and moves back in the house with us, she and her hus­band liv­ing in the basement apart­ment and hav­ing a daugh­ter. My niece. For rea­sons I no longer re­call, my sis­ter re­turns

to work from her ma­ter­nity leave be­fore my niece’s first birth­day. As I live just up­stairs, I volunteer to look af­ter the in­fant, and for two months, I care for my niece, our days full be­yond over­flow­ing with walks to the park, Seuss, East­man, Sen­dak, Mun­sch, Bemel­mans and a very hun­gry cater­pil­lar, and while such sen­ti­men­tal in­dul­gences may not be typ­i­cal be­hav­ior for twenty-six-year-old un­cles, there are few bet­ter prepa­ra­tions for be­com­ing the fa­ther of a daugh­ter over a decade later. At some point, af­ter my niece reaches her first, sec­ond and third birthdays, I pass along my sealed plas­tic con­tain­ers of Lego, and they be­come my niece’s toys to play with when she is ready.

For the next decade, while I move from city to city, while I marry and move again, while we have Molly and fi­nally set­tle, my sis­ter moves from the basement apart­ment to a dif­fer­ent house, has a sec­ond daugh­ter, ends her first mar­riage, and strug­gles. It is also dur­ing this decade that our dad dies. Like me, my sis­ter de­liv­ers a eu­logy at his fu­neral, and like me, she has many, many mem­o­ries to share. Later, she meets a man with two chil­dren who is a good fa­ther, and later they marry, pro­duc­ing their own fran­tic, hec­tic noise that can’t help but blend into a wholly re­built fam­ily. Over many Christ­mases, Easters and birthdays, many toys and books are given as gifts, and my old Lego blends in. Later, when my niece is grown and moves away to uni­ver­sity, my sis­ter packs up some of those books and passes along copies of Ra­mona, Judy Moody and Kim Pos­si­ble to my daugh­ter.

Al­though I will prob­a­bly never be the kind of man who fills his basement with pol­ished glass dis­play cases of toys and col­lectibles, I am the kind whose basement is full of shelves of books—many bought new, but most sec­ond-and third-hand from li­brary sales and book­stores—and I know of the mir­a­cles that travel be­tween the pages of used books. Be­tween their pages, I have found book­marks and re­ceipts and Post-it notes from cities and towns around the world, but I have also found a shop­ping list that in­cluded cumquats (The Love Depart­ment—9780140031300-1966), an air­plane ticket from La­Guardia to Pear­son (Bech is Back—97803 94528069-1982) and a lam­i­nated me­mo­rial card from the fu­neral service of a child (All Aunt Hagar’s Chil­dren—9780060557560-2006). So I am not at all sur­prised that the folded in­struc­tion sheet to a Lego Land Fire Pumper Truck (66901980) should find its way back to me some thirty-five years later.

“It was in one of Aun­tie Hay­ley’s books,” Molly says.

Of course it was.

“You can keep it if you want.”

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