Every year my husband and I volunteer to help out at a community center holiday party for underprivileged kids.
We show up early on a Saturday morning and help organize the gifts, which always ends up being an overly complicated endeavor, lining up gift bags on tables and checking off similar sounding names. And then we go into another room and help set up the games and goodie trays and craft tables and take our places at our assigned station for the party.
This year we were in charge of the Fishpond Game.
Basically, this game is an inflatable kiddie pool filled with plastic balls. To play you dip your hands under the plastic balls and fish out the hidden plastic duck toys. The end.
It's supposed to be for the very littlest of the little kids, something to occupy the toddlers while their older siblings make glitter crafts or play mini golf or tattoo themselves with holiday-themed tattoos.
My husband and I sat across from each other on the floor and were immediately stressed out playing the Fishpond Game.
I was worried about the germy germ aspect of all of those plastic balls. The runny noses and drooling and dropped wet cookie chunks splattering. My husband was anxious about the kids who were clearly taller than the height restriction sign, but yet kept trying to jump into the ball pool. And then there were all of the kids who thought it was fun to throw the balls, so that within minutes of the holiday party starting, plastic balls were bouncing and rolling all over the room.
A toddler toddled up, a little boy, maybe age two or three and very serious-looking. He refused to climb into the ball pool. He was hesitant about even putting his hands in, not that I blamed him, what with all the germy germs. I showed him one of the toy duckies, and he was curious, but kinda meh about it, not that I blamed him there either.
All of the other kids were having a blast. My husband and I pointed out the plastic ducks and wiped runny noses and tied little sneakers. We gave up enforcing the height rule and let the older kids flop and roll in the ball pool. We praised a helpful kid who brought back a thrown ball and soon we had a bunch of helpful kids running around the room chasing and collecting.
Another volunteer came by with a camera and asked all the kids around the ball pool to smile. The serious little boy just looked up at her blandly.
Come on, she said. Gimme a smile. And she reached down to touch his face.
I started thinking about this children's picture book author I heard speak at a writers' conference a few years ago. He said that most people have this very nostalgic view of childhood. They remember it as all glowy and happy and carefree, and they forget the reality. How so much of your little life is out of your own control and at the mercy of adults.
You're sitting on the floor playing a game and having a grand old time, and BOOM, some large person comes into the room and swoops you up and carries you off to bed.
You're constantly being monitored and told what to do and what not to do. What to eat. What clothes to wear.
And that's just the kids with the good, loving parents.
What about the children with parents who aren't all that good or loving, the author reminded us. The children who are neglected or abused. Imagine how unpredictable and scary and dark the world is for children like that.
The photographer volunteer wandered off to take pictures of the kids at the glitter table. The party went on. The holiday music blared and the balls bounced around the room. The cookie crumbs and drooly doughnut chunks kept dropping into the ball pool. The older kids flopped and buried each other. They darted off and got tattoos on their cheeks and made glitter pictures and then darted back to show my husband and me what they made.
During a rare quiet moment of an unoccupied ball pool, the serious little boy climbed in and sat down. He dug his hands under the plastic balls and found a couple of toy duckies. After a while, he leaned back, sliding his small body under.
Are you a giant duckie? I asked him.
He didn't say anything, but he smiled up at the ceiling.
Santa Ho-Ho-Ho-ed into the room, and it was time for presents and everyone trooped off to go get them. The little boy climbed out of the ball pool and toddled off to catch up with his older siblings.
If there is a word for the opposite of nostalgia, I am that word.
But I understand why we do it, paint our childhoods under a glowy haze. Why we want children to smile. Why we imagine them playing happily, their parents swooping them off to bed each night with gentleness and love.