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.”