There I was sitting in a large room with hundreds of people, when I saw her come around the corner in that exquisite dress. The most beautiful girl in the place. And all I could think of was wood and nails.
Maybe I should explain.
I was in the middle of my last rotten kids’ Grad – my only daughter’s Grade 12 graduation ceremony, and here I was drifting back more than a decade, drifting back through an eye-watering cloud of sawdust to a pile of wood and nails.
Elementary school. The kids were the perfect age. It was exactly the right time.
We needed a playcentre in the back yard, and I was going to attempt to build it.
Over the next week or so I somehow managed to knock together a passable vertical labyrinth of wood and nails using very little talent, and sustaining only a few major injuries. It’s a good thing my Grade 1 son and playschool daughter were my official helpers, though, or I would never have figured out the really tough parts.
It was an instant hit. As I had hoped, they were all over the thing, climbing the ladder, sliding on the slide, swinging on the swing.
The cat however, quickly took over the sandbox underneath, and based on the special cat deposits she made there, nobody argued with her.
In particular though, my little girl immediately made it into a personal imagination station.
At various times it was her private clubhouse or a fancy restaurant where she served us make-believe coffee in exchange for nice rocks we had to find in the alley.
It became an invincible fort, a princess’s castle, a comfy cave or an enchanted tower.
My little princess would spend countless hours on the swing – her dolls and her stuffed animals watching from the top deck under the blue tarp tent, awaiting their turn with her on the swing. I would watch her from the house as she would swing for hours, singing made-up songs and jabbering away, creating countless magical adventures.
That playcentre was the heart of our backyard universe for a very long time. A touchstone for the growing-up years of a son and a daughter.
But time flies by in blink, doesn’t it?
Eventually, inevitably, the swing stood still most of the time, and the faded and worn wood didn’t have kids climbing on it anymore. Even the cat didn’t visit her sandbox; and one year I didn’t even replace the ripped blue tarp tent top.
Then somehow my son was already in college and my littlest one was now a busy teenager, a competitive dancer, on the go at school and with her friends, growing independent, finding her way in a world outside of backyards and playcentres.
And one day, after prolonged procrastination on my part, I casually mention to the kids that I’m thinking about taking down the playcentre. They don’t say much, just looking away, nodding.
And so it was that one Sunday not that long ago, I took one last look at the pile of precious wood and nails that was home to a thousand playful hours, a thousand imagined adventures, and a million smiles. The laughter of my children ringing in the air like an echo.
And I was having trouble seeing, but I swung the hammer anyway.
It took all afternoon to take down the Playcentre and haul it away. Leaving a whole lot of empty in our tiny yard.
It was the worst playcentre day ever.
And then, not long after, as grad was approaching, I walked by my girl’s room and for once, her door was open. But she wasn’t in her room as usual, sitting on her floor with her music and her laptop.
When I looked outside, out to the back yard, she was there, standing where the playcentre used to be. Quietly. By herself.
Looking around. Remembering.
And now she’s here in this big and busy room, tall and beautiful in that grown-up dress, walking towards us. But all I can see is a little girl on a swing in our backyard, the wind in her long hair, and she’s singing to herself without a care in the world.
Harley Hay is a local filmmaker and freelance writer.